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After decades of debate, Colorado will give sex assault victims unlimited time to sue their abusers

Senate Bill 73 is on its way to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk and would eliminate Colorado’s six-year statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims

Colorado Court of Appeals courtroom. At the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, on the first floor, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Jeffrey Beall, via Flickr)
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Colorado will give recent and future sexual assault survivors, including those molested as children, unlimited time to sue their abusers. But a separate effort to give victims of historic abuse an opportunity to take legal action remains pending and uncertain.

State lawmakers on Tuesday sent Senate Bill 73, which would eliminate the civil statute of limitations for sexual assault cases, to Gov. Jared Polis, who says he will sign the measure into law.

Legislation eliminating the civil statute of limitations for sexual assault cases has repeatedly failed in the Colorado General Assembly, including at least three times in the 15 years preceding the 2021 lawmaking term. But following a 2019 report on widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Colorado, the effort gained new steam. 

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“I’m truly speechless,” said state Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican who championed the measure. “This is 30 years in the making.”

Under current law, child sex assault victims in Colorado have six years from the day they turn 18 to sue their abusers. Senate Bill 73 gives people for whom that six-year statute of limitations hasn’t run out and anyone abused after Jan. 1, 2022, unlimited time to file a lawsuit against their abuser or abusers.

The legislation does not affect victims of historic sexual abuse, such as those abused by Colorado priests decades ago. For criminal cases, there is no statute of limitations for child sex assault in Colorado.

“For me, it’s personal,” said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat who also championed the legislation. “As a sexual assault survivor, this bill doesn’t help me, but I understand the importance because of how long it took me to talk about what happened when I was seven.”

State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, speaks about mental health parity to the audience at The Colorado Sun’s Big Ideas 2020 Forum at the Cable Center on the University of Denver campus on Jan. 14, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Michaelson Jenet said she doesn’t know who her abuser was so she couldn’t bring a case against them. 

For many abuse survivors, it can take decades before they feel comfortable sharing their stories. 

“By the time most (victims) are just able to tell their loved ones, not even law enforcement, the statute of limitations has expired,” Soper said. “To know that this bill will give them their entire life to come forward is pretty incredible.”

The Colorado Sun last year profiled a man who waited more than three decades to tell his family that he had been abused as a child by a priest who was a constant figure in their lives. 

“When I look back, the reason I didn’t say anything is because I didn’t want to hurt my family,” the man, Neil Elms, said.

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Lawmakers made one last-minute change to Senate Bill 73, aligning the measure with Colorado’s criminal sexual assault laws to ensure the statute of limitations elimination only applies to felony and Class 1 misdemeanor cases. 

“We wanted to make sure that we narrowed the scope of the sweep of this bill so that we only were catching up the worst of the worst,” Soper said, explaining that some lawmakers were worried that the bill would, for instance, allow people to file lawsuits against college streakers after decades. 

Shelby Weiman, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Polis will sign the bill.

“The governor appreciates the work by the General Assembly on this important bill and looks forward to signing it,” she said in a written statement.

Gov. Jared Polis delivers his State of the State address in front of the House of Representatives at the Colorado Capitol Building on Wednesday, February 17, 2021. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The legislature is also debating Senate Bill 88, which would give historic victims of child sex abuse time to sue their abusers and institutions that may have covered up their crimes. 

There are questions, however, about whether the legislation violates a clause in the Colorado constitution barring lawsuits from being filed in cases for which the statute of limitations has expired. State Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said he thinks the legislation has “serious constitutional issues” and that it’s likely to be struck down in court.

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Further, Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic Church in state legislative issues, warned in a committee hearing that Senate Bill 88 would bankrupt institutions like hers. 

“The impact is dire, and it will be on the backs of the people who had nothing to do with the very heinous crimes that we’re talking about,” she said.

Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila prays before the Blessed Sacrament during the Consecration of the Archdiocese of Denver to the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on October 13, 2017, in Denver. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Soper, who is also working on Senate Bill 88, said he and others working on the legislation will “certainly have our challenges” getting the measure passed.

Fiscal analysts expect the bill to cost the state up to $13.7 million a year in legal fees and damage payouts. 

“Costs may decrease over time after any initial influx of cases, and to the extent greater liability encourages agencies to take additional steps to prevent instances of sexual misconduct by employees and others who interact with children in state-run programs,” the fiscal analysts wrote in a legislative memo.

Still, Soper says the measure’s chance of passage is “pretty good.” 

Senate Bill 88 is still working its way through the Senate. 

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