A Michigan bill inspired by the Larry Nassar scandal that would retroactively extend the amount of time child victims of sexual abuse have to sue their abusers is drawing concerns from the Catholic Church, which has paid out billions of dollars to settle U.S. clergy abuse cases.
Michigan Catholic Conference spokesman David Maluchnik confirmed Tuesday that extending the statute of limitations is "of concern" to the church's lobbying arm, but he withheld further comment until the bill's impact could be fully reviewed. He said the group supports other parts of a 10-bill package introduced Monday, including a measure that would add more people to the list of those who must report suspected abuse to child protective services.
A state Senate panel quickly passed the bills later Tuesday, a day after Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Jordyn Wieber and other Nassar accusers and victims helped unveil the legislation.
Currently, people who are sexually abused as children in Michigan generally have until their 19th birthdays to sue. Under the legislation, child victims abused in 1993 or later could sue until their 48th birthdays while those assaulted in adulthood would have 30 years to file a claim from the time of the abuse.
Past bills to give victims more access to the legal system have stalled in Michigan, partly because of opposition from the Catholic Conference. Advocates for change say giving victims just a year to sue after turning 18 protects child molesters because survivors often wait to report the abuse due to fear or because they repressed it.
"The harsh reality is that in most cases, survivors of sexual assault are too deeply traumatized to be able to speak out and pursue justice until decades later," Rachael Denhollander, a Nassar victim, told members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee. She said the median ages for women and men to disclose abuse from childhood are 41 and 38 respectively.
"This means that by the time a survivor is able to speak and to seek help, by the time justice could be done against their abuser, the avenues of justice both criminally and civilly have completely cut off — and not because the evidence isn't there but because of a legal technicality."
In the mid-2000s, Michigan courts ruled that men who said they had been molested by priests decades earlier had waited too long to sue. The plaintiffs and victims' rights advocates turned to the Republican-controlled Legislature for help, but the legislation died.
The Nassar scandal could lead to change, however, as both Republicans and Democrats are backing the new bills. Nassar, a Michigan State University sports physician who also worked for USA Gymnastics, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, on top of a 60-year federal term for possessing child pornography. Among his more than 250 accusers are several U.S. Olympians and the case has drawn worldwide attention.
It is unclear if the statute of limitations or others bills could be revised.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the Catholic Church is concerned that the statute of limitations bill could "open up other things that have been closed," and "I think they have some valid concerns." He declined to say if he wants to amend the legislation, though.
It is unknown how many victims of sexual abuse would benefit from the measure, or the potential financial implications for the Catholic Church.
David Mittleman, a lawyer representing 90 Nassar accusers who have sued Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and others, said he is confident those who are no longer minors could argue they did not become aware of the abuse until 2016, when The Indianapolis Star helped to expose it. But he said after he helped a man receive a settlement from the Diocese of Lansing about a decade ago, three or four dozen men and women from across Michigan reached out with accusations against the Catholic Church but were barred from suing due to the time limit.
Mark Bendure, an appellate attorney, said he knows of roughly 10 such cases that have been tossed due to the statute of limitations. He said many more victims have not sued because it would be futile or for other reasons. Barbara Dorris, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said just in the past month, she has talked to two people from Michigan in their early 20s who said they were abused by a priest and a minister but cannot sue because of the time limit.
"It has broad bipartisan support," Mittleman said of the legislation. "I don't know how anyone can look in the mirror after saying they opposed a bill that would provide more protection for victims of sexual assault."