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Members of the Colorado House meet on Monday, June 7, 2021, during the final days of the 2021 legislative session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado legislature on Tuesday sent Gov. Jared Polis a contentious bill that would give historic survivors of child sexual assault, for whom the civil statute of limitations has run out, a three-year opportunity to sue their abusers and the institutions or organizations that failed to stop the abuse. 

Senate Bill 88 cleared the House on a 50-14 vote. The Senate voted 31-3 on the measure. 

Lawsuits could begin on Jan. 1. The bill would cap damages for public entities sued under the bill at $387,000. There would also be a $500,000 “soft” cap for private entities, like a church or summer camp, sued under the legislation. The limit rises to a $1 million “hard” cap if a victim can prove through clear and convincing evidence — the highest legal standard in civil law — that an institution failed to take steps to stop the abuse or notify the public of the risk. 

If signed into law by Polis, Senate Bill 88 would put Colorado on common ground with other states, including California and New York, that have already passed laws giving victims of past child sex assault a window within which to file lawsuits.

The passage of Senate Bill 88 is the culmination of years of efforts at the Colorado legislature to give survivors of child sexual assault more opportunities to hold their abusers accountable. It often takes decades for victims to come forward and tell their stories, at which point their options to secure financial assistance for the psychological care they need may have run out.

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat who has worked on the issue for years, said she is “so grateful to this body for coming together to support survivors.”

“Also: Phew,” she said. 

The Catholic Church fought the Colorado measure, warning that it would put an undue burden on people who had nothing to do with transgressions from decades ago. 

Republicans and some Democrats also argued that the measure violates the state constitution, which prohibits legislation from reopening cases for which the statute of limitations has expired. 

But proponents of the measure argued that the legislation represents a new civil cause of action, and thus it doesn’t clash with the statute of limitations for Colorado’s other civil laws around sexual abuse. 

The constitutionality question nearly derailed the measure in the House Judiciary Committee last week, which narrowly advanced the measure. Heading into the hearing, it appeared there wasn’t sufficient support from Democrats to push the bill forward. 

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Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, said just before the committee voted 6-5 to move the bill along that she didn’t know how she was going to vote, citing constitutional concerns. 

Bacon voted “yes” after Rep. Mike Weissman, the committee’s chairman, turned to the six fellow Democrats on the panel and pleaded with them to advance the bill. “Even if this is a close call — (it’s not) a close call in my mind — a close call goes to the survivors of child sexual abuse and institutional coverup,” the Aurora lawmaker said.

The outcome was so surprising to Michaelson Jenet, the Commerce City representative, that she clutched her chest and cried.

The constitutionality question could ultimately land in the courts, observers say.

“Our civil legal system is the single system designed to provide victims with the financial resources they need to heal from emotional, physical, and mental trauma,” said Raana Simmons, the director of public affairs for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Through this bill, childhood sexual abuse survivors will have access to the civil legal system and hold the institutions accountable who, at best, were complicit in the abuse and, at worst, participatory in shielding serial sex offenders from accountability.”

The governor already this year signed Senate Bill 73 into law, which eliminated the civil statute of limitations for future sexual assault cases. 

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....