Lawmakers make few changes to sex abuse bill |

Lawmakers make few changes to sex abuse bill

Associated Press Writer

DENVER ” A plan to give people one year to file lawsuits over old sexual abuse allegations cleared one of its last remaining hurdles in the Legislature on Tuesday.

A panel of state lawmakers assigned to work out differences between House and Senate versions of the bill backed the one-year window for lawsuits for abuse that happened as far back as 1971. However, the conference committee also tried to protect the rest of the bill in case that part is ruled unconstitutional.

The Colorado Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s three Roman Catholic bishops, has said allowing old lawsuits to move forward could be unconstitutional. It opposes the bill (House Bill 1090).

The committee backed a Senate amendment that would ensure remaining provisions of the measure remain in effect if any part of it is ruled unconstitutional. Members also said that someone bringing an old lawsuit should have to be interviewed by a psychologist, a psychiatrist or a social worker to make sure they exhibit symptoms of childhood sexual abuse.

The bill also removes the statute of limitations for filing sexual abuse lawsuits from now on. People now only have until age 24 to sue but the bill would give them until they’re 53 to take action. Victims say most people don’t come to terms with their abuse until their 40s and 50s and their lawsuits could reveal alleged abusers who are still allowed to be near children.

It allows people to sue the person that allegedly abused them as well as any public or private institution that knew or should have known about the abuse. Both public and private institutions would be limited to paying out $150,000 damage awards in the old cases, but private institutions would be open to much higher damages in future case.

Under current law, damages against public agencies are limited $150,000 but private institutions can be held liable for up to $732,000 plus unlimited economic damages, such as lost wages. The House had made public and private institutions subject to the same higher caps that apply to private institutions in future cases but the Senate changed that.

Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Golden, said the state also could be sued under civil rights law in federal court, where there are no limits on damages. Private institutions cannot be sued under that law.

Fitz-Gerald said lawmakers tried to make public and private institutions as equal as possible under her bill, but said they are subject to different laws. Public institutions must keep public records and hold open meetings while private institutions never have to reveal whether someone has been disciplined for sexually abusing a child, she said.

“We were asked to make apples and oranges the same fruit by the Catholic Conference,” she said. “In the long run, they are still public and private and there is still a chasm of difference.”

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, said teachers whose licenses are revoked by the state are barred from teaching in the state, but still could be allowed into classrooms in other states. He supported getting rid of the one-year window.

“In the House, we said we will make this about victims, not a year of litigation,” he said.

The proposal now heads back to the Senate for another vote.

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