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Committee will not consider bill to eliminate statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims

Victims of childhood sexual assault suffered another setback Thursday as they learned the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee has decided not to consider a bill that would have eliminated the statute of limitations that prevents older victims from filing lawsuits.

The revelation comes after a state law passed in last year’s session created a task force to study the issue and make a recommendation. That task force, headed by state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, recommended the elimination of the statute of limitations, which currently prohibits those older than 51 from suing the person who assaulted them and organizations such as the Catholic Church.

"This is heart-wrenching news," said Beth McCabe, one of the leaders of the Connecticut chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, and a sexual assault victim herself. "They (the victims) will be hurting tonight. And they will be hurting until we get this law passed."

Lucy Nolan, director of policy and public relations for the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said, "We know there are some very powerful opponents out there that can block this kind of legislation. They are stopping survivors from getting the help they need to move forward with their lives."

In a hastily called news conference in the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, McCabe, Nolan, sexual assault victims and others who support them called on the Judiciary Committee to raise the bill and schedule a public hearing today, the last day to do so for the shortened session.

During the hearing, Flexer reported she has just learned that the agenda for today’s Judiciary Committee meeting did not include consideration of the bill.

A frustrated Flexer said she had not expected this outcome, as Senate President Martin Looney had assured her the bill was a priority this session. "I thought we would at least get a public hearing," she said.

Flexer said all the work to derail the bill was being done behind closed doors. "People do not have the guts to stand up and say no" to considering the bill, she said.

A few minutes earlier, Flexer had told the victims and members of SNAP and the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence that legislators feel the bill "is not worth their time this year."

She said she may take the unusual step of making a motion to raise the bill at Friday’s committee meeting in an effort to have legislators publicly state their position through a vote.

After the news conference, victims and representatives from SNAP and the Alliance fanned out to legislators' offices to try and convince them to raise the bill today.

Asked why the bill would not be getting a public hearing, Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, released this statement through his office: "With respect to this important and sensitive issue, it should be noted that the Judiciary Committee led passage of significant changes to both the civil and criminal statutes of limitations just last session. Elimination of the statute of limitations altogether and retroactive application were two of the proposals that received public hearings and were controversial. In this ‘short’ legislative session, the calendar only allows for the Judiciary Committee to hold between 8 and 10 public hearings. Unfortunately, that means not every worthwhile or important topic can get a full airing. In fact, the Committee is only raising around 30% of the ideas or concepts that were proposed to us. With that said, we hope to discuss further changes to the statute of limitations in a future legislative session."

A review of bills that will be given consideration this session include one concerning the liability of property owners to pay to remove a fallen tree or limb, and one to make the theft of waste vegetable oil or animal fats a fourth-degree larceny.

The committee’s other co-chairman, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, did not respond to a request for comment.

State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, a member of the committee, said Thursday that she would like to see the bill considered this session. But she also pointed out that she had a number of bills that will have to wait for consideration until next year because of the shortened session.

During Thursday’s news conference, Lynn Laperle, a sexual assault victim who is also a member of the task force, said the committee’s decision to not take up the bill is again silencing victims.

"Change this law. Send a clear message to predators that you will be held responsible for the damage you caused," she said.

McCabe said Connecticut has fallen behind others states when it comes to dealing with this issue. She said continuing to protect predators and the institutions they belong to also costs taxpayers money because they, rather than those responsible for the abuse, end up paying for treatment and other impacts.

"Place the liability on those who commit the abuse and those who covered it up," she said.

Nolan said it is time for the General Assembly "to take care of us and not protect the predators."

Flexer’s task force was the result of an unsuccessful effort in the last legislative session to eliminate the statute of limitations for 27 months to give sexual assault victims who had been prevented from filing lawsuits because they were older than 48, the cutoff age at the time, an opportunity to do so. In addition to forming the task force to study the issue and make recommendations, the legislature also increased the age limit from 48 to 51. That is one year younger than the age it takes the average person to reveal to someone that they were sexually assaulted as a child, according to Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and constitutional law scholar. She has tracked and studied the issue across the country for the past 16 years and has testified before the task force.

The language of last year’s bill was changed behind the scenes, as some legislators were lobbied by opponents and raised concerns about the bill.

The task force recommended not only the elimination of the current statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits by victims of sexual assault, abuse or exploitation, but specified the change be retroactive — meaning victims of any age could sue, including those who are now prohibited from doing so because they are older than 51.

It also would have made Connecticut just the second state in the nation, behind Vermont, to totally eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims to file lawsuits. Other states, such as New York, have increased the age cutoff, and created a one-time window of a year or two for victims of any age, to file lawsuits.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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