More than a decade after the last serious proposal of its kind failed, 20% of Colorado’s legislators support extending the civil statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Colorado Politics contacted all 100 members of the General Assembly by e-mail, phone or text message asking if they would support, in principle, allowing more time for abuse victims to sue abusers or the institutions that harbored them.

Fifteen out of the 65 representatives and five out of the 35 senators back a time extension, although many of them noted that their support depends on the provisions of a bill.

Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Colorado Springs, said she could support extending the right to sue until a victim reached age 35, “but no longer. That would give people time to mature and decide to come forward.”

“As the only member of the legislature with a Master of Divinity degree,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, “I feel compelled to point out that any clergy who opposes extending the statute of limitations should familiarize themselves with Matthew 18:6.”

The passage reads: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Several lawmakers disclosed that they were crafting bills on the topic, but none of those proposals is public yet.

Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, said that he will be one of the lead sponsors once legislation is finalized. He recalled how several years ago, he sat through a panel discussion about sex trafficking and learned that by the time many victims are able to talk about their stories, the statute of limitations had expired.

“I wanted to do something to help, at least give victims a chance to make a case, rather than having a statute say their six years has expired,” said Soper.

The Philadelphia-based think tank Child USA reports that the median age for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to come forward is 48.

Calls to modify the statute of limitations have followed Attorney General Phil Weiser’s release of a report which found that 43 priests in Colorado’s three Catholic dioceses allegedly abused at least 166 children between 1950 and 1998.

Former U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer and a team of investigators relied on the Catholic Church’s voluntary handover of documents, and found 22 additional cases of abuse not previously documented.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Jeb Barrett, a victim of clergy abuse himself, at a press conference in October.

Through a spokesperson, Weiser declined to comment on extending the statute.

An additional 18 legislators are either uncommitted or undecided to revising the statute of limitations. Among them was Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, who said he had yet to form a position.

“I do think the Catholic Church has a real problem, though,” he said. “Too much of this has been going on for too long.”

Colorado’s statute of limitations for civil lawsuits in child sex abuse cases generally runs out six years after the victim turns 18. For lawsuits against organizations that employed the abuser, the window is two years after age 18.

The General Assembly eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for sex offenses against children committed after July 1, 1996. The burden of proof is lower in civil cases, where plaintiffs seek damages from the defendant.

“I’m always coming against the statute of limitations issue,” said Pamela Maass, a Denver-based attorney for sexual abuse victims. “I think it’s confusing for survivors and people in the system because typically survivors are told, ‘go through the criminal process first. Don’t talk to a civil lawyer.’ Then by the time they get through the criminal process, the statute of limitations is elapsed.”

“They are in the wrong”

If Colorado did extend its civil statute of limitations, it would not be alone. In 2019, twenty-three states and the District of Columbia extended various statutes of limitations for offenses involving children. Vermont eliminated its civil statute of limitations entirely for child sexual abuse.

In New York, Linda Rosenthal had watched bills to extend the statute of limitations go down to defeat during her 13 years as a state assemblywoman.

“Thinking about it again is just upsetting because it’s such chutzpah. They are in the wrong,” the Manhattan Democrat said from her office in November. “Different institutions harbored criminals. Just moved them around from parish to parish or school to school and now they are still blaming the victim and saying the victim or the survivor should not have access to any recourse.”

This year, the Child Victims Act became law, and Rosenthal was the sponsor. She took over after the original proponent, a Queens assembly member whose son was a clergy abuse victim, lost her re-election.

“We had people cross over who were Republicans or who were Catholics, and it was just too much for them to bear,” Rosenthal recalled. “They said, ‘I can’t allow adults who, as children, were victimized to be victimized again.” 

She credited a 2018 grand jury report, which found that 300 Pennsylvania priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children, with helping change votes.

One state to the south, Sen. Joseph Vitale agreed that the grand jury had an effect on the 15-year effort in New Jersey.

“I think some of my Catholic friends felt that this was an attack on the church,” said the Democrat from Woodbridge Township. “They almost felt some sort of protectionism. That it was an attack on the saints. And it’s never an attack on the saints. It wasn’t the saints’ fault. It was me trying to hold institutions accountable for child abuse.”

New York and New Jersey both raised the civil statute of limitations to enable anyone age 55 or younger to sue. New York also opened a one-year “lookback window” to allow anyone to file suit, regardless of whether the statute had previously barred them. Lawyers had filed 385 lawsuits by noon on the first day alone.

In California, lawmakers raised the statute of limitations to include child abuse victims up to age 40, and opened a three-year lookback window. The new law, AB218, also awards triple damages to any victim who can prove that their abuse was part of a cover-up.

“The arguments that are raised by the other side, if there is any argument to be raised, is that [extending the statute] makes it much more difficult because the evidence is stale, the evidence is lost, witnesses are lost, witnesses are gone,” said Samuel Dordulian, a Glendale-based plaintiff’s attorney and former prosecutor. “And that’s fine and dandy. But if that’s true, then I wouldn’t be able to prove my case. If I can put my case together and I can find those witnesses, if I can corroborate the testimony of my survivor, then I should be allowed to do so.”

The 1990 change

The last major change to Colorado’s civil statute of limitations for child abuse occurred with House Bill 90-1085, 19 years ago.

In a letter of support, the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual assault found that “the average amount of time between the date the cause of action occurs and the point at which a client can adequately deal with the assault to be nine years.”

Consequently, legislators amended the statute of limitations to its current time frame of six years after a victim turns 18 — down from 10 as originally proposed.

However, HB 90-1085 included the provision that “Nothing...shall be construed to extend the statutory period with respect to vicarious liability.”

This meant that lawsuits against organizations — churches, schools, companies — was limited for the most part to two years.

“Ninety-nine percent of the cases I have, I’m going against third parties. It is extremely rare for me to bring a direct case against a perpetrator,” said Maass. “You can declare bankruptcy, you can shield money. It’s really hard to collect money from an individual like that.”

Each person interviewed for this story whose state had extended the individual and vicarious statute of limitations by the same amount found Colorado’s gap odd.

“It really should not be different at all,” said Rosenthal, the New York assembly member.

“Not only is it surprising, but it's disappointing to hear,” said Dordulian, the attorney from California.

“Having separate statutes of limitations is unfair and unreasonable,” said Vitale, the New Jersey senator. “The abuser is the abuser and they should all burn in hell. But the organization who enabled the abuse and permitted the abuse and was aware of the abuse and did nothing to stop it is just as culpable.”

It is unclear why the General Assembly chose to extend the statute of limitations for individuals’ liability while not also raising the statute for vicarious liability.

“I can say that if you were not going after an organization, that you would have less opposition,” speculated former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Jefferson County. “Certainly less lawyers.”

Another possibility, in reading the letters of support submitted to the House Judiciary Committee, is that lawmakers were thinking of the problem as the product of one perpetrator and one victim, not of an institution-wide conspiracy.

“Current statutes of limitations virtually eliminate the possibility for a battered woman to seek civil actions against the perpetrator,” read a statement from the Colorado Domestic Violence Coalition.

“It is not too late for me to take legal action against my batterer; please do not make it too late for other women,” a woman wrote in January 1990.

Whatever the reasoning, the courts saw that the gap between the individual and vicarious statutes of limitations was no accident.

A Colorado Court of Appeals opinion from 2000 found that a woman who had a sexual relationship with a teacher employed by the Archdiocese of Denver was incorrect to allege that the six-year statute of limitations against the school applied in her case.

“The explicit exclusion from the statute of a claim which theoretically could have imposed liability on a third party, however, confirms that the six-year statute of limitations is to apply only to the perpetrator of the sexual assault,” wrote Judge Janice Davidson.

Blowup in 2006

In August 2005, The Denver Post reported that 12 men came forward as childhood abuse victims of Father Harold Robert White. The Troyer report would find that White, who died in 2006, allegedly fondled and raped 62 boys and one girl over the course of his career. (In November, two women alleged that they were also victims of White, and said that they had since met with Troyer’s investigators.)

The following legislative session, Fitz-Gerald authored Senate Bill 06-143, which opened a two-year lookback period for civil suits. She patterned it after a successful measure in California from 2003 that unleashed 1,000 claims, the vast majority of which involved clergy abuse.

SB 06-143 and a companion House bill to extend the statute drew the ire of then-Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. He wrote that the proposals “exist for one reason only: to target the Catholic community. That’s why they were introduced. That will be their effect, if passed.”

“What they were saying publicly was, ‘you’re going to ruin the Church’s ability to do its good work,’” recalled Fitz-Gerald. “The Church has been relentless in fighting this. They fear for their treasury and not for their children.”

The lobbying and the arguments from Colorado’s Catholic dioceses mirrored the experience in New York and New Jersey.

“If we cause them to have to pay out all this money so they couldn’t afford to have schools open or churches open, you’re punishing the next generation because they’d be deprived of a good education,” Rosenthal summarized, following it with a laugh. “I mean, that’s so convoluted.”

“This will bankrupt the diocese, and by doing so we’ll be taking the food out of the mouths of the hungry and leaving the naked without clothes and being unable to serve the population that we serve,” said Vitale of his experience. “Which are and have been historically scare tactics without any merit and basis in fact.”

Vitale called the Church’s tactics “textbook lobbying,” focusing on the worst-case scenario of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy, he pointed out, would only mean protection from creditors while reorganization takes place.

“If the awards were so great that they had to file for bankruptcy, what does it say about the amount of abuse that took place?” he asked. “Shouldn’t that be the issue?”

In Colorado, hours of wrenching testimony and debate pushed Fitz-Gerald’s bill through the Senate, only to see it die in the House.

Chaput transferred to Philadelphia in 2011, and announced his retirement in August 2019.

“As the Archbishop is serving in Philadelphia and no longer has any jurisdiction over matters impacting the Archdiocese of Denver, he politely declines,” wrote Kenneth A. Gavin, Chaput’s chief communications officer in Philadelphia, in response to a request for comment.

Two years later, Rep. Gwyn Green, D-Golden, tried again solo. Her proposal, House Bill 08-1011, eliminated the civil statute of limitations and opened a two-year lookback period.

The bill only made it as far as the House Judiciary Committee, in which all but two members voted to kill it.

At the time, then-Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said that extending the statute of limitations “flies in the face of 400 years of common law.” Gardner, now a state senator, supports an extension.

“They defied criminal law and allowed these men — even when they found out that all these allegations were true and troubling, they just let them go,” said Fitz-Gerald, practically yelling at the memory of what happened. “I’m sorry, where did they go? They never had a trial. They never went to jail. They are maybe working in a YMCA someplace.”

The Troyer report found that the Colorado dioceses’ internal methods for dealing with misconduct investigations were riddled with deficiencies. These included victim advocates who were “too intertwined” with investigators and rulings that are “not disinterested and unbiased.” A recent Associated Press analysis corroborated the varied, secretive and hostile processes of the conduct review boards.

In November, abuse victim Joe McGee told reporters in Denver that officials’ response to his allegation was, “If Jesus could suffer and die on the cross, I would think you could handle this.” 

Since the failed legislative attempts, a 2012 ballot measure known as Initiative #91 proposed to open a two-year lookback period for civil child sex abuse lawsuits and eliminate the gap between individual and vicarious liability. However, the organizers withdrew it before it hit the ballot. One of the designated representatives, who now works for the state, had no memory of that measure.

Lingering concerns

One of the major questions any extension of the statute of limitations will have to answer is: who can be sued?

After the 2006 attempt in Colorado opened up public entities to vicarious liability, a larger coalition of interests joined the Church in opposition. 

A repeat of that decision could cause problems for otherwise sympathetic legislators, like Rep. Colin Larson.

Larson, R-Littleton, believes that abuse in the Catholic Church is a unique situation because of the dramatic imbalance of power.

“They have authority over the damnation of your soul, that just creates — it’s such a unique and powerful situation that obviously it’s going to take a person’s entire life to come to grips with challenging the institution that has authority over their eternal salvation,” he said.

On the one hand, dismissing abuse by saying it happened decades in the past or that a priest is dead is not good enough for Larson, and he feels the victims are “due their day in court.”

On the other hand, he wants a legislative fix to be as specific to this situation as possible.

“We’re already having a difficult time paying teachers enough money to get them to become teachers to begin with. If we’re saddling districts with potentially millions if not tens of millions of additional legal costs, we’re going to see a quick deterioration in, I think, teacher salaries and their ability to provide compensation for people,” he said. “I don't want to get into a situation where we are creating a legal heyday for lawyers who want to gum up the works with every claim they can possibly think of.”

Vitale, who made no exemption for public entities in New Jersey’s new law, rejected the argument that school districts, or their insurance companies, could not afford to provide compensation to victims of their institutions.

“How is it that someone who’s a victim of, let’s say, clergy abuse or a Scout leader can file a claim, but someone who is a victim of a local soccer coach or elected official can’t receive the same path to justice?” he said. “It’s completely unfair and unreasonable. You can’t have it both ways.”

Rosenthal agreed, pointing to a tweet from the New York State Catholic Conference officially dropping its opposition to her Child Victims Act after the bill included public entities.

With the ability to sue civilly, victims will have access to documentation showing what Church officials knew about abuse allegations. The Troyer report found that since 1950, Catholic officials chose not to report to law enforcement on more than 100 occasions, lied to victims about what they knew, and in one case sent a letter reading, “I am sorry you believe it happened.”

As with other states, the Catholic Church has set up a compensation fund, in which independent administrators will assess claims and determine payouts to victims. Those who choose to take the payment may not later sue, even if the statute of limitations changes.

The last date to submit a claim is Jan. 31. The legislative session begins on Jan. 8.

In a preview of the rhetoric that might resurface with any proposed legislation, the Catholic League, which responds to “slanderous assaults” on the Catholic Church, attacked The Denver Post’s coverage after the report’s release.

“Fully 84 percent of the victims were boys, and most were postpubescent, meaning that their victimizers were homosexuals,” the League wrote. “In keeping with the homosexual cover-up, neither the Denver Post, nor any of the other media outlets, made mention of this.”

Rep. Bri Buentello, D-Pueblo, is a Catholic who is uncommitted to supporting an extension. A survivor of sex assault, she said there is “so much pain” in her faith community over the revelations.

“No, we have not talked about it,” she said, adding that she has a hard time discussing it without crying.

For Fitz-Gerald, a Mass-going Catholic at the time, the 2006 debate ushered in the end of her relationship with the Church.

“I don’t know what the Church is going to do this time. I suspect what they are going to say is, ‘oh, we took care of that. And now we’re reporting,’” she said. “Eh, I’m not that sure. I’m not that sure."

 

Colorado Politics asked all 100 members of the Colorado General Assembly if they support extending the civil statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse. Their responses are below.

House District 1Susan LontineDNo response.
House District 2Alec GarnettD
Uncommitted/undecided: "If a proposal moves through the legislature I will have to look closely at some of the legal concerns and the legislative language put forth about removing a statute of limitations retroactively."
House District 3Meg FroelichDNo response.
House District 4Serena Gonzales-GutierrezDNo response.
House District 5Alex ValdezDNo response.
House District 6Chis HansenD
Uncommitted/undecided: "While I cannot commit to supporting a hypothetical legislative proposal, I do support the victims of Colorado's systemic clergy abuse, and will consider legislative measures this next session to ensure that they are able to seek justice."
House District 7James ColemanDNo response.
House District 8Leslie HerodD
Yes: "Rep. Herod does support extending the civil statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse cases."
House District 9Emily SirotaD
Uncommitted/undecided: "I believe conversations are ongoing and will work with my colleagues to ensure a just outcome for survivors and prevent abuse from happening in the first place."
House District 10Edie HootonD
Yes: "I would support extending the civil statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse cases and would be very interested to hear arguments against doing it."
House District 11Jonathan SingerD
Yes: "He would definitely support extending the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse cases."
House District 12Sonya Jaquez LewisD
Yes: "I would support an extension."
House District 13K.C. BeckerD
Uncommitted/undecided: "We are exploring how we can help hold abusers accountable and will be having discussions with advocates, survivors and stakeholders to see what actions would be appropriate. We must ensure that this never happens again and that those who have harmed children in our state are brought to justice. "
House District 14Shane SandridgeRNo response.
House District 15Dave WilliamsRNo response.
House District 16Larry ListonR
Uncommitted/undecided: "At this time, I am not sure. I have not formed an opinion on this issue yet. Put me down as undecided?" Follow up: "I just haven’t thought about it. I do think the Catholic Church has a real problem though. Too much of this has been going on for too long."
House District 17Tony ExumD
Uncommitted/undecided: "We are looking closely at how we can best hold abusers accountable and achieve a just outcome for survivors."
House District 18Marc SnyderD
Yes: "There's definitely a need for a greater period of time for folks to come forward with these horrible allegations. Yes, I would be open to extending that statute of limitations....In a general principle, I'm open to the idea and would be very interested in learning ways that we could extend that statute of limitations."
House District 19Tim GeitnerRNo response.
House District 20Terri CarverRNo response.
House District 21Lois LandgrafR
Yes: "I understand the problem and sympathize with the victims. However, those accused can also be falsely accused becoming victims themselves. I could support an extension. 30-35 but no longer. That would give people time to mature and decide to come forward."
House District 22Colin LarsonR
Yes: "As long as they come up with something that’s narrow and tailored, I think it’s absolutely appropriate that we would offer victims that opportunity."
House District 23Chris KennedyD
Uncommitted/undecided: "I’m not yet ready to commit to any particular policy change, but I believe it’s important that this conversation move forward. Ultimately, we may identify multiple policy ideas that could meaningfully ensure that the abusers are held accountable and that we do everything possible to prevent abuse in the future."
House District 24Monica DuranD
Uncommitted/undecided: "When I think of the pain and suffering experienced by far too many in Colorado, and around the world, I am heartbroken and appalled by this behavior!...You can rest assured that these conversations are ongoing and I’m committed to working with my colleagues in the legislature and stakeholders to address this issue with the seriousness and attention it deserves."
House District 25Lisa CutterDNo response.
House District 26Dylan RobertsD
Uncommitted/undecided: "I can't take a yes or no position but in general, yes, of course I support efforts that would make it more feasible for victims of these horrendous crimes to seek a civil remedy."
House District 27Brianna TitoneD
Yes: "Every time we see another abuse scandal like this, we hope it's the last one. Sadly, we continue to see the pattern of accuse. I support giving these victims more time to try their cases. It's the least we can do for the victims."
House District 28Kerry TipperDNo response.
House District 29Tracy Kraft-TharpDNo response.
House District 30Dafna Michaelson JenetD
Uncommitted/undecided: "This is definitely something that we are continuing to explore for possible legislation. We are heartbroken over the pain and suffering so many have endured and we’re continuing to work with survivors to achieve justice."
House District 31Yadira CaraveoDNo response.
House District 32Adrienne BenavidezD
Uncommitted/undecided: "For vicarious liability, I would be open to considering that."
House District 33Matt GrayDNo response.
House District 34Kyle MullicaDNo response.
House District 35Shannon BirdDNo response. 
House District 36Mike WeissmanDNo response.
House District 37Tom SullivanDNo response.
House District 38Susan BeckmanRNo response.
House District 39Mark BaisleyRYes: "Yes."
House District 40Janet BucknerDNo response.
House District 41Jovan MeltonD
Yes: "In general I support extending the statute of limitation on civil cases. I do think that six years after turning 18 years old is too short a period."
House District 42Dominique JacksonDNo response.
House District 43Kevin Van WinkleRNo response.
House District 44Kim RansomRNo response.
House District 45Patrick NevilleRNo response.
House District 46Daneya EsgarDNo response.
House District 47Bri BuentelloD
Uncommitted/undecided: "I'm a mother. I'm a Catholic. I'm a schoolteacher. The abuse that these survivors have been through, it's horrific....I think this is an absolutely horrendous light on the church that I call home, and I look forward to continuing to explore how we can hold these abusers accountable in the next legislative session."
House District 48Stephen HumphreyRNo response.
House District 49Perry BuckR
Uncommitted/undecided: "I think I need to know more before I speak on that."
House District 50Mary YoungDNo response.
House District 51Hugh McKeanRNo response.
House District 52Cathy KippD
Yes: "Based on what I know at this time, I would favor reform of the statute of limitations" to "give people more time."
House District 53Jeni James ArndtD
Yes: "Yes I do support extending the stature of limitations for childhood sex abuse."
House District 54Matt SoperR
Yes: "I’m planning on being the co-prime sponsor of a bill similar to what you are describing."
House District 55Janice RichRNo response.
House District 56Rod BockenfeldR
Uncommitted/undecided: "I cannot respond...until I actually read the bill, heard testimony, and evaluated debate."
House District 57Perry WillR
Yes: "I do support extending the statute of limitations depending on several factors and also weighing potential for unintended consequences. But on the surface and at first glance I do support extending."
House District 58Marc CatlinRNo response.
House District 59Barbara McLachlanDNo response.
House District 60James WilsonRNo response.
House District 61Julie McCluskieDNo response.
House District 62Donald ValdezDNo response.
House District 63Lori SaineR
Yes: "It seems reasonable to me to extend time civilly in light of what happened."
House District 64Kimmi LewisRNo response.
House District 65Rod PeltonRNo response.
Senate District 1Jerry SonnenbergRNo response.
Senate District 2Dennis HiseyRNo response.
Senate District 3Leroy GarciaDNo response.
Senate District 4Jim SmallwoodRNo response.
Senate District 5Kerry DonovanD
Uncommitted/undecided: "I'm open to it. I would need to understand the issue more. I assume there are broader implications for other SOLs, though a growing body of research is helping folks understand why survivors of child sex abuse in particular take longer to come forward."
Senate District 6Don CoramR
Yes: "I would be yes in principle, but I'd have to see some kind of a draft."
Senate District 7Ray ScottRNo response.
Senate District 8Bob RankinRYes: "Yes"
Senate District 9Paul LundeenRNo response.
Senate District 10Owen HillRNo response.
Senate District 11Pete LeeD
Uncommitted/undecided: "I am interested in this issue but have not reached a position on it as I am still looking at the implications."
Senate District 12Bob GardnerR
Yes: "For civil cases, the legislature needs to consider legislation that would extend the statute of limitations in cases of child sex abuse and adult sexual assaults in some way as well."
Senate District 13John CookeRNo response.
Senate District 14Joann GinalDNo response.
Senate District 15Rob WoodwardRNo response.
Senate District 16Tammy StoryDNo response.
Senate District 17Mike FooteDNo response.
Senate District 18Stephen FenbergDNo response.
Senate District 19Rachel ZenzingerDNo response.
Senate District 20Jessie DanielsonDNo response.
Senate District 21Dominick MorenoD
Uncommitted/undecided: "I don’t commit to a position without seeing specific bill language."
Senate District 22Brittany PettersenDNo response.
Senate District 23Vicki MarbleRNo response.
Senate District 24Faith WinterDNo response.
Senate District 25Kevin PriolaRNo response.
Senate District 26Jeff BridgesD
Yes: "I'd want to see the specific proposal, but in principle absolutely."
Senate District 27Jack TateRNo response.
Senate District 28Nancy ToddDNo response.
Senate District 29Rhonda FieldsD
Yes: "I'm going to be forming legislation to extend the statute of limitations."
Senate District 30Chris HolbertRNo response.
Senate District 31Lois CourtDNo response.
Senate District 32Robert RodriguezDNo response.
Senate District 33Angela WilliamsDNo response.
Senate District 34Julie GonzalesDNo response.
Senate District 35Larry CrowderR
Uncommitted/undecided: "I would not have a problem extending statute of limitations, but would need guardrails on protecting those who would be deemed innocent of crime. Something like stiff fines if accusation could not be proved. You also need to realize that we could not place this just on clergy. The legislation would be for all citizens....Another issue would be how would this likely look if accused perpetrator reside in another state or country."
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