A bill that would give victims more time to bring criminal cases or civil claims for childhood sexual abuse got plenty of support Wednesday in its first hearing.
“This bill is the right thing to do,” said Jed Fitch, president of the Montana County Attorney’s Association. “It is far past time.”
Fitch noted there is no statute of limitations for homicides, and said there should not be for child sex abuse cases, either.
"Perpetrators like this don't deserve that safe harbor," Fitch said.
But while all who testified spoke in favor of the bill, some were worried how new reporting requirements would be implemented.
The bill, HB 640, would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal cases and extend from age 21 to age 27 the time frame during which a victim can sue over alleged abuses.
It makes no change to current law that allows victims to sue after the statute of limitations has expired, but within three years of recognizing their abuse. Experts say victims can repress memories of abuse and struggle to come to terms with its lifelong impacts.
The bill beefs up penalties against mandatory reporters who fail to act by making it a felony in cases involving sexual abuse allegations.
And it requires the health department to immediately report to county attorneys any child abuse cases in which sexual abuse is alleged.
Carried by Missoula Democrat Rep. Shane Morigeau, the bill was designed as a compromise that tied together multiple bills aimed at enhancing victims’ ability to go after their childhood abusers — either criminally or civilly.
County attorneys said they support the bill, but that current language could prove problematic for them.
“It’s going in the right direction, but don’t expect this to be an overnight success,” said Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson, specifically referencing the proposed reporting requirements.
The bill would require county attorneys to report to the attorney general’s office quarterly on the status of cases alleging childhood sex abuse. The attorney general’s office would then have to report to lawmakers each year a few key facts, including how many cases were reported to each county attorney, whether prosecution was initiated or declined, and the names and dispositions of all defendants criminally charged.
For Swanson, that could be a problem.
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“What I don’t want this to turn into is a, I guess, an opportunity, a fishing derby where I produce a list and Beaverhead County produces a list, and … they could look at our numbers and go, ‘Well gosh, you’ve only prosecuted 25 percent of the cases that were reported,’” he said.
County attorneys are working with Morigeau to address other concerns, including whether current language in the bill opens the door to publish confidential criminal justice information.
The bill also requires county attorneys and the health department to retain records of child sex abuse allegations for 25 years.
"For a small county, it's a burden," Swanson said, in a call after the hearing. "For a large county, it's a big burden."
The committee took no action on the bill Wednesday.
Among the half dozen victim advocates, abuse survivors and prosecutors who urged lawmakers to advance the bill Wednesday was Kristen Newby, the daughter of former Miles City athletic trainer James “Doc” Jensen, who is accused in a civil case of perpetrating years of sexual abuse against high schoolers under the guise of sports massages. Jensen admitted Tuesday to one count of using the internet to sexually abuse athletes in U.S. District court in Missoula.
Newby said that some cases are "very prosecutable" and placing them under a statute of limitations "doesn't make sense to me."
Newby pointed to both her father’s case and that of Ronald Dwight Tipton as recent examples of survivors of childhood abuse being denied their day in court for criminal cases.
Tipton was charged in Yellowstone County in 2015 after the state got a DNA hit on a cold case from 1987 in which a man had invaded a home at night and raped an 8-year-old. The case was ordered dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
While Jensen has been prosecuted federally, he cannot be prosecuted by the state for his alleged abuse at the Custer County District High School because that statute of limitations has expired.
One other provision of Morigeau's bill also allows for lawsuits to be filed up to two years after an alleged perpetrator confesses, if the statute of limitations has already expired.
That’s what appears to have happened in Jensen’s case. In a phone call with The Billings Gazette the day the lawsuit was filed, Jensen admitted to masturbating students, saying he hoped it “didn’t do a lot of emotional or other trauma to the boys.” And in Jensen's guilty plea accepted Tuesday, he admitted to the basic tenets of his "program." "We would admit there were probably a hundred victims in this case," his attorney, federal defender Steven Babcock, said in court Tuesday.
The bill pertains to victims younger than 18 of the following crimes: sexual assault, sexual intercourse without consent, aggravated sexual intercourse without consent, indecent exposure, sexual abuse, ritual abuse of a minor, incest and sexual exploitation.