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Time running out for some sex abuse victims to file suit

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Time is quickly running out for many who were sexually assaulted or abused years ago as children to try to get some justice from perpetrators or those who allowed it to occur.

An Arizona law approved last year scrapped existing statutes that required victims to sue before the 20th birthday or forfeit their legal rights. Now they have until age 30.

That portion of the law is permanent.

What is not is a temporary legal “window” that legislators agreed to open for those whose time to file suit already had expired. They have only until the end of this year to bring their claims.

But even with the new opportunity it won’t be easy.

To get the necessary votes, proponents of the change had to agree to some curbs that could make proving the case more difficult.

First, those in this second category 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 must provide proof that someone in authority not only knew about the incidents of abuse but either did nothing or deliberately covered it up.

And there’s something else: Anyone bringing one of these older cases can seek only actual damages. They could not collect punitive damages, also called “exemplary damages,” which are designed to both punish an individual or organization for outrageous acts as well as make an example of them to deter similar conduct by others.

Sens. Heather Carter and Paul Boyer hug May 28, 2019, at a ceremonial signing for a bill that will expand opportunities for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers. The two freshman Republican senators defied party leadership and stalled the state's 2019-20 budget to seek a vote on the bill. With Carter losing her seat in the 2020 GOP primary and Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, losing in the 2020 general election, Boyer is the last of Senate Republicans who bucked their party and the Democratic caucus’ biggest hope of helping them stop GOP legislation and pass Democratic bills. (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)

Sens. Heather Carter and Paul Boyer hug May 28, 2019, at a ceremonial signing for a bill to expand opportunities for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers.  (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)

In fact, that issue of money was so divisive that it hung up not just the legislation but also the $11.8 billion state budget as Sens. Paul Boyer R-Phoenix, and Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, refused to provide the necessary votes spending plan until they got a change in the law they believe will help victims and provide a financial incentive to organizations to weed out the predators in their midst.

But that limit was necessary to bring foes onboard the plan.

For example, Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, said the legislation was being pushed by trial lawyers eager to collect legal fees. And he said that providing more time to sue doesn’t help victims as no amount of money can compensate them for what they endured.

But Boyer said the law is about more than getting justice. He said that, in many of these cases, the same people who had abused these victims were still in positions of responsibility — and still working with children — who need to be exposed.

The 2019 vote came with some 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, took to the Senate floor during debate on the measure to detail how had she had been raped repeatedly as a child by her grandfather.

“I didn’t know it wasn’t my fault,” she told colleagues. “It wasn’t until I was in my 40s I realized I was not his only victim.”

Advocate and abuse survivor Bridie Farrell speaks June 26, 2019, about her abuse experience during a press conference at the Downtown Hilton. Farrell, who was only 15 years old when she was abused by a speed skating teammate who was 32, lobbied for an Arizona law that expands the statute of limitations for sex abuse survivors to sue. PHOTO BY GRAYSON SCHMIDT/CRONKITE NEWS

Advocate and abuse survivor Bridie Farrell speaks June 26, 2019, about her abuse experience during a press conference at the Downtown Hilton. Farrell, who was only 15 years old when she was abused by a speed skating teammate who was 32, lobbied for an Arizona law that expands the statute of limitations for sex abuse survivors to sue. PHOTO BY GRAYSON SCHMIDT/CRONKITE NEWS

But much of the push came 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 the 2019 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.”

Farrell herself got to take advantage of a similar change in law enacted in 2019 by New York lawmakers, filing suit against the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and her alleged abuser, four-time Olympian Andy Gabel.

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said those who opposed the initial plan were not trying to protect abusers but simply wanted a question of balance and an opportunity for those accused of abusing children years ago to defend themselves.

Fann, a former mayor, worried that someone could approach a city and claim he or she was molested 40 years ago at a community pool.

“How does a municipality possibly defend that,” she said.

“The employees are long gone, there’s no way to prove that it ever happen,” Fann explained as the bill was being debated. “What happens is the insurance companies say, ‘We’re going to settle out of court because we’re not going to spend a half a million dollars trying to defend something that we cannot prove.”

Despite the unanimous vote, the process of getting there did leave some hard feelings.

“I have been threatened personally and politically,” Carter said about her refusal 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 Boyer 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.”

In the end, even Gov. Doug Ducey found the issue so important he agreed to a signing ceremony at the Capitol less than 24 hours after the final compromise was unanimously approved.

“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.”

 

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