In a stunning reversal on Friday, a lead sponsor on a bill that would have given future child sexual assault victims in Colorado unlimited time to sue their abusers and those who allowed their abuse to happen asked that the measure be rejected.
Instead, state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, said she wants to bring legislation that would also allow prior child sex assault victims to sue to their accusers as other states have done — sometimes called a “look-back window” — despite caution from the legislature’s attorneys that doing so may violate the Colorado constitution.
“I’m not willing to pass a bill that lets perpetrators off the hook,” Gonzales said. “I will not settle for watered-down justice. I believe we have to do better. All victims of sexual assault deserve to see their abusers held accountable.”
The Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee obliged Gonzales’ request and House Bill 1296 was voted down by a 5-0, bipartisan vote.
The last-minute change of heart on House Bill 1296 in the final days of the 2020 Colorado legislative session means that state lawmakers will not address policies around child sex assault after the attorney general released a report late last year showing that at least 166 children have been sexually abused by 43 Catholic priests in Colorado since 1950.
The emotional decision was met by pushback from Raana Simmons, director of policy for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, who pleaded with the committee not to vote down the bill. She said she was “deeply disappointed” by the decision.
“This is the third time in the last 15 years that this policy has come before this body,” Simmons said. “And this is the third time that this body will decide to take no action to create a pathway for survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual assault that can provide them with the resource they need to recover from the trauma they experience.”
Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican and another prime sponsor of House Bill 1296, was also upset with the move. “If not now, when do we take our responsibility and our debt to young people whose lives have been ruined?” he said before walking out of the committee room before the vote was taken.
Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, called the death of the measure “very, very unfortunate.”
“Every time we do this we cost others who have been abused the time needed to be able to get resolution on their cases while the look-back option is debated,” she said. “It is a big mistake and I am devastated again by the decisions of the Senate on very well stakeholder House bills.”
Ted Trimpa, a lobbyist for the Washington, D.C.-based Victim Policy Institute, said it was necessary to reject House Bill 1296 to “truly hold organizations and individuals accountable.”
“This bill was a get out of jail free card for organizations that harbored sexual perpetrators,” he said.
When the legislation was introduced in February, there was fierce disagreement among victims’ advocates about how to proceed. They were split between those who wanted to pass legislation to aid victims only moving forward and others who wanted to roll the legal dice and try to aid past victims of abuse, too, potentially risking that the whole policy could be tossed out in court.
Ultimately, the bill’s prime sponsors in the Colorado House, namely Michaelson Jenet, opted to go with the version of the bill only affecting future abuse survivors. She made that decision after receiving an opinion from the Office of Legislative Legal Services saying that passing a law affecting cases in which the statute of limitations has already expired violates the state constitution.
“Once a statute of limitations has run, it is unconstitutional for the General Assembly to revive a claim to which the statute of limitations defense applies,” the opinion said.
Under current law, child sex assault victims in Colorado have six years from the day they turn 18 to sue their abusers. They have just two years to sue an organization that acted negligently in allowing the abuse to continue or by shielding the perpetrator.
House Bill 1296 would have eliminated the statutes of limitations, but only for future victims of child sexual assault. People abused decades ago, such as victims of sexual assault at the hands of Catholic priests in Colorado, would not have been able to take legal action under the policy.
Sen. Mike Foote, chairman of the Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee and a former prosecutor, said he believed the decision to set aside the bill was the right one. He believes there is a narrow window in the state’s constitution — called the public policy exception — that may allow past child sex abuse victims to sue.
“What I fear, personally, about if this bill were to pass is that (the ability of prior victims to sue) could never happen,” Foote said. “What I fear about this bill is if this bill passes, there will be no way to pass a bill in the future that would address retrospective abuse.”
Foote said that if the legislature passed a bill saying that only future victims can sue, a court may reject an argument that past victims should also be allowed to file legal actions. He said it would be wrong for Coloradans abused in the past as children not to have the option to sue when people in other states have that ability.
It’s likely the policy will reappear during next year’s legislative session.