Colorado house of representatives

This Gazette file photo shows a session of the Colorado House of Representatives.

A bill to give childhood sex abuse survivors unlimited time to sue their abusers and the institutions that harbor them has reappeared in the General Assembly for the first time in more than a decade.

House Bill 1296 would eliminate the civil statute of limitations for victims who were sexually abused as children. Victims now have generally until the age of 24 to sue their abusers, and only until age 20 to sue the employers or institutions that harbored the abusers.

The bill would eliminate the gap between vicarious liability, as it is known, and individual liability. Lawsuits would also be allowed against perpetrators who are deceased.

“The goal is to protect people going forward at this point,” said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, the sponsor of the bill.

“As someone who was the victim of sexual assault when I was 14, this doesn’t help me. I can’t now go after my abuser and, while I have my own feelings on that, I really want to make sure that going forward we put a stop to this.”

If enacted, only victims whose statute of limitations has not run out as of Jan. 1, 2021, would be able to sue for incidents of abuse in the past. Otherwise, the bill will apply prospectively.

The proposal comes in the wake of an October report from the attorney general’s office that found at least 43 priests had sexually abused at least 166 children in Colorado’s Catholic dioceses since 1950. The investigators, led by former U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer, found “a strong culture of reluctance to report serious crimes against children if doing so might harm the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church or the career of a fellow priest.”

Of those cases, only one resulted in a referral to law enforcement for investigation, having not yet exceeded the statute of limitations.

Michaelson Jenet said that her proposal was not prompted by the Troyer report, and instead was the product of longstanding work by groups such as the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Child USA, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, reports that the average age for child survivors to come forward about their abuse is 52.

Twenty-seven state legislatures have introduced proposals this year to reform the statute of limitations, and 14 states are considering a “lookback” window that allows victims whose statutes of limitations have expired to file suit.

Victims’ groups have advocated for civil lawsuits as a way to force institutions to disclose what they knew about abuse allegations.

Apart from criminal proceedings, which have a higher burden of proof, civil suits allow victims to collect damages from perpetrators or those responsible for employing them.

“Removes the statute of limitations? I continue to support it!” wrote Andrew Romanoff in a text message. Romanoff, a Democratic Senate candidate, was the speaker of the state House of Representatives in 2006 during the last major attempt at giving victims more time to sue.

In the 2006 legislative session, bills to extend the civil statute of limitations and open a lookback window died in the last days of the session.

A related bill to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse was signed into law.

In 2008, Rep. Gwyn Green, D-Golden, tried again to get rid of the civil statute of limitations, but her bill died in a House committee.

A devout Catholic, Green died in 2018.

“I know that my former colleague, the late Rep. Gwyn Green, would feel vindicated by this effort to ensure perpetrators and responsible entities face their victims,” said former House Majority Leader Alice Madden, D-Boulder, on Thursday.

The bill will appear first in the House Judiciary Committee, likely in early March.

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