DENVER | Over a dozen years after a fierce fight to end time limits on filing sexual abuse lawsuits, Colorado lawmakers are trying again to get rid of the statute of limitations, saying victims are often not ready to go to court until years later.
Unlike the 2006 attempt, the legislation was introduced by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who worked with a coalition of groups to gradually develop the proposal over four years. The measure, which is scheduled for its first hearing Thursday, would end the statute of limitations for all lawsuits going forward that allege sexual assault.
However, it would not allow people who have already lost their chance to sue to file cases, which other states have done as childhood sexual abuse victims have come forward in recent years.
Some believe that the Colorado Constitution would bar that, potentially tying up the change in court. Including that option could have led to survivors having to wait again for justice, bill co-sponsor Democratic Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet said.
People who have been sexually abused now have six years to sue their abusers and two years to sue any institution that employed the abusers. For those abused as children, that clock starts when they turn 18. That means childhood victims have until age 24 to file a claim, though advocates say the average age victims speak about abuse is 52.
The time limit for filing criminal sexual assault charges against someone in Colorado is 20 years. The statute of limitations was doubled in 2016 at the urging of two Colorado women who accused Bill Cosby of assault.
The Archdiocese of Denver, which fought the 2006 attempt, said it opposes an unlimited statute of limitations.
“Statutes of limitations exist for a reason, and we believe any extension must be fair, reasonable and consistent,” archdiocese spokesman Mark Haas said.
Suzy Shotts, who was sexually abused by her late grandfather over seven years, said she did not begin to understand what happened to her until she was 40 when she had trouble breathing and speaking.
A doctor diagnosed her with vocal cord dysfunction, which he said was typically related to childhood abuse and suggested she seek counseling. Shotts, now 50, said she had to take leave from work as she sought help and estimated that she has spent $15,000 on counseling.
Although it was not possible in her case, she said allowing survivors to sue can help them get the compensation they need to rebuild their lives.
“I didn’t ask to be abused. I didn’t ask for those things to happen to me, but I am the one who has to deal with all of the consequences of it,” said Shotts, a member of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s survivor task force.
One of the leaders behind the latest attempt to change the law is an obstetrician-gynecologist who began asking her patients about whether they were sexually assaulted during their annual visits 25 years ago.
Anne Marie Woodward was astounded by the number who said they were and how many women in their 50s and 60s said no one had ever asked them that. Woodward, the daughter of a minister, said she is not trying to target churches by changing the law, just help survivors get the help they need and send a message to abusers that they will be held accountable.
“I will keep going forward until it passes. It’s the right thing to do,” she said.