By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services
Victims of child rape and sexual abuse won’t get more time to sue their assailants, at least not this year.
Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, refused to allow a vote on the measure Thursday in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which she chairs.
Cobb said she has no problem with expanding the current law that now requires victims to file suit within two years of turning 18. SB 1011 would have expanded that to 12 years, meaning when someone turns 30.
But Cobb said she could not support a provision designed to provide some legal relief for those who were molested years ago but whose time to file suit under the current Arizona law has long since expired.
Her action came after Gregory Kelly, now a Gilbert resident, told lawmakers how he was able to use a more expansive law in Delaware “to expose a serial pedophile who had gone undetected for decades.’’
He and his brother, 12 and 11 at the time, were abused over a three-night period by a lifelong friend of the family. But Cobb said the shock of it all prevented him from disclosing what had happened until he was an adult.
It was only later he discovered the Delaware law allowing for late-filed lawsuits. He said the publicity around his case brought out dozens of other victims who were willing to testify, resulting in the judge stepping down from the bench, admitting to the incidents.
“It is my belief that, without the civil window in Delaware (law), that Judge Bradley would have continued to molest children until caught, which might never have happened.
“Sadly, my brother, having never come to grips with his abuse in the way that I did, took his own life at age 55 last November,” Kelly said.
The proposal by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, would have provided a two-year window to bring all these old cases to court. That would have opened the door for victims of past child abuse to file new lawsuits, even if the incident had occurred decades earlier.
But the failure of the issue to advance can’t be blamed strictly on Cobb.
Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said he was willing to hear Boyer’s measure in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Farnsworth said he would not consider any version that would open that new two-year window to file suit on prior cases.
Boyer found that unacceptable and sought to make an end-run around Farnsworth by having the measure heard in Cobb’s committee. Cobb agreed to allow testimony from Boyer as well as victims and advocates – but no vote.
What makes Cobb’s action so crucial is this is the last committee hearing of the session. And Boyer, who has been championing the issue for years, cannot get the bill to the full House or Senate – where he claims he has the votes – if he can’t get out of a committee.
The problem, said Boyer, is that Arizona has a two-year statute of limitations to file civil claims of rape and sexual abuse.
That clock does not start running until the victim turns 18. But Boyer said that is insufficient time for someone who has been groomed by a predator to actually realize that it was not their fault and how they had been harmed.
Attorney Jeff Dion, who said he was a victim of child sex abuse, said that’s exactly the case.
“I did not recognize what happened to me counted as abuse until I was in law school,” he told lawmakers. “I was in my mid-30s before I recognized how that abuse had harmed me and what the impact had been on my life.”
Dion said this legislation isn’t simply about getting compensation and justice for victims. He said such lawsuits are the only way of shining a light on those who committed abuse and putting a halt to their activities.
“We know that, even if it takes someone 30 years to disclose the abuse, when their perpetrator is still alive, they’re often still molesting kids,” he said.
Boyer said the current requirement to file lawsuits by someone’s 20th birthday is the lowest of any surrounding state.
There is some debate about whether to increase that to when someone turns 25 or 30. The issue, said Farnsworth, is allowing those who say they were prior victims of abuse to file suit now, no matter how long ago that was.
For example, he said, there may have been policies in place at the time about whether someone was allowed alone in a room with a child.
“That’s some evidence,” Farnsworth said. “If that’s all been destroyed 50 years later, how do you present that?”
Ditto, he said, of a situation where there was someone else in the room who has since passed away.
“We’re not talking about five years later,” Farnsworth said. “We’re talking about potentially 30, 40, 50 years later.”
That did not bother Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson. He said if the plaintiff can’t provide sufficient proof of the incident, a jury will throw out the case.
But Farnsworth, who is an attorney, said the allegation itself is a form of proof that puts the burden on the defense to find evidence that may no longer be around.
And that, he said, is the whole reason that there are statutes of limitations.
“The farther you are removed from an incident of harm, the less likely the evidence is going to be valid,” Farnsworth said. “It may not even be existing because people shred documents, because people move away, because people die, because people don’t remember.”
The legislation allows a lawsuit against officials of any organization who purposely ignore evidence that someone is guilty of sexual abuse and continue to allow them to come into contact with children.
“I’m concerned about the liability for first responders who just blow it and don’t see the signs” of sexual abuse, said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. He said that also could mean lawsuits against teachers who suddenly find themselves being sued decades later “when they can’t even get witnesses to testify in their favor because everybody’s gone or passed away.”