Calling it a “significant and critical first step,” Gov Doug Ducey has signed into law a measure that will give those who were sexually assaulted or abused as children more time to sue, no matter how long ago the event occurred.
“Sexual abuse is never easy to disclose, especially for a young person,” the governor said at a signing ceremony Tuesday at the Capitol, less than 24 hours after lawmakers approved the change unanimously.
“This we know: Victims need time, time to process, time to understand what has happened and to come forward,” he said. “And they deserve the ability to come forward.”
The new law, which took effect immediately on Ducey’s signature, does that in two ways.
First, it scraps the prior statutes which required victims to sue before their 20th birthday or forfeit their legal rights. Now they will have until age 30.
Second, it opens up a temporary legal “window” for lawsuits by those whose time to file suit already has expired: They will have until the end of 2020 to bring their claims.
But concerns about people bringing claims on incidents going back decades forced a compromise to get the necessary votes.
First, those in this second category will have to prove their claims by “clear and convincing evidence.” That’s a higher standard than “preponderance of the evidence,” the balancing test used by jurors now – and still available for those who sue by age 30 – to determine whether it’s more likely than not that the incident occurred.
Any lawsuit in that group against a church or organization also would have to provide proof that someone in authority not only knew about the incidents of abuse but either did nothing or deliberately covered it up.
Finally, those suing based on older claims cannot seek punitive damages.
The changes in law drew praise from Bridie Farrell, a former speed skating champion who came to Phoenix to testify about how, at age 15, she was sexually assaulted by a much older silver Olympic medalist while at a training facility. She said it took her years to come to terms with what happened to her.
Farrell said the ability to pursue not just those who committed the abuse but those who knew is critical.
“Survivors don’t want to take down the LDS church or the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts or, my case, the United States Olympic Committee,” she told those at Tuesday’s signing ceremony.
“We want to ensure that no child has to go through what we went through,” Farrell said. “And that’s all this has been about from the very beginning.”
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, who was the prime mover behind the legislation, said it is part of an effort to help those who have been abused.
“This bill in particular offers justice for survivors who have been sexually assaulted, and hope – hope that no other child will have to be harmed in this manner,” he said.
Ducey separately formed a task force to evaluate existing Arizona laws for protecting children and young adults who have been sexually abused. He said it will include victims, police, prosecutors and court officials.
But the governor was less clear on whether there would be representation by the organizations that tend to get sued in these kinds of cases and the insurance companies who represent them.
“Of course we want to have all voices represented,” he said.
“There’s always a concern about false accusations,” Ducey continued. “And of course we don’t want to harm any worthy institution.”
The governor said he will talk with those he will appoint to lead the task force to determine who should be represented.
Monday’s vote came after several lawmakers related personal stories.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, told of going to Catholic seminary at age 13 and his “complicated seduction” by an older seminarian who would later become “one of the most notorious child sex abusers in Arizona history.”
“I kept the ship afloat, I found a way,” Bradley told colleagues. Now a therapist, he said others were not so fortunate.
“I attended their funerals, visited them in prisons, witnessed their destruction personally and the many lives that they have touched and were adversely affected,” he said. “The abused sometimes became the abuser.”
Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, told of a family member who was victimized as a child, as did Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek.
And Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, who previously disclosed rape by a family member, said victims “remember each day of our lives.”
Despite the unanimous vote, the process of getting there did leave some hard feelings.
“I have been threatened personally and politically,” Carter said. She was one of the two Republican lawmakers who refused to vote for the budget until lawmakers agreed to make major changes in the time limits for victims to sue. And Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, lashed out at Carter and Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, for taking that stance, saying they were holding the Legislature hostage.
Carter conceded her role in delaying adoption of the budget. But she had no apology, accusing those who pressured her of using “school yard bully tactics.”
“Nothing that we have experienced the past two weeks comes even remotely close to what a victim of child sexual abuse experiences,” she said. “That’s why I held out.”