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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    General Assembly will again not consider modifying limitations on sexual assault lawsuits

    The state's Roman Catholic dioceses as well as other organizations will receive another reprieve, as it appears the legislature's Judiciary Committee will not consider a bill this session that would temporarily lift the statute of limitations that prohibits past victims of sexual assault who are now older than 51 from filing a lawsuit. 

    Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, said Tuesday that with this year being a short legislative session and the committee only having seven to eight days to hold hearings on all its bills, the sexual assault bill would likely not be heard, as a hearing on it would require an entire day. No bill has been introduced, according to the General Assembly website. 

    In addition, he said there has been no unanimity about the language of the bill. For instance, he said he has no objection to a person being allowed to directly sue their attacker but he has reservations about suing "secondary actors" such as organizations as the person who committed the assault, rebuttal witnesses and evidence may not be available. He said there are also questions about how long the window to file suits should be open.

    He said in this session the bills that are being discussed have been around for a while and are more fleshed out with specific, agreed-upon language.

    Stafstrom said he could not predict whether the bill would be considered in the 2023 session.

    He also pointed out the legislature recently has taken action on the issue. He said he pushed a successful effort in 2019 that increased the age from 48 to 51 to file lawsuits and repealed the statute of limitations on filing criminal sexual assault charges. 

    "Its not like the legislature has ignored this issue," he said. "We have taken action."

    But Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and constitutional law scholar who studied this issue across the country, told a General Assembly task force in 2019 that, on average, it takes a person until age 52 to reveal to someone they were sexually assaulted as a child, which is one year later than the current statute of limitations.

    Gail Howard, one of the leaders of the Connecticut chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, was again disappointed a bill would not be raised.

    "I don't know how these decisions are made. First, it's a budget year and then it's a short session. They have a perpetual excuse," she said last week. "We're asking why Connecticut doesn't take the lead on this when it takes the lead on other important legal and social issues."

    She pointed to the successful lawsuit by families of children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting  against gunmaker Remington as evidence Connecticut is enlightened when it comes to such issues.

    "So why are we in the dark again on this?" she said, adding that in recent years other states, such as New York, have created a window of time for sexual assault victims to file lawsuits regardless of their age. 

    Howard pledged that victims and their supporters will continue their fight.

    "We are not going away," she said.   

    Even if a bill were approved this session and signed into law, it would have come too late for people who say they were sexually assaulted by priests from the Diocese of Norwich but cannot currently file lawsuits because they are older than 51. 

    That's because last summer the Diocese of Norwich filed for bankruptcy protection, which put any lawsuits on hold while it develops its bankruptcy plan and has it approved by a federal judge. The diocese is scheduled to file a bankruptcy plan by April 15 that will detail its assets and how much will be distributed to the victims, who are expected to number more than 80. The exact number of those who are seeking payments will not be known until March 15, which is the deadline for victims and other creditors to file their claims in the bankruptcy case. Some of the claimants are victims older than 51 and it is unknown if the diocese and its attorneys will oppose making payments to them.

    No bills were introduced in the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions, both of which saw a limited number of bills raised amid restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The effort to change the law has been headed by state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, who co-introduced a sexual harassment and sexual assault bill in 2019. Among its provisions, it called for the elimination of the statute of limitations for 26 months to give childhood sexual assault victims who are older than 48, the cutoff age at the time, an opportunity to file lawsuits. But that provision was stripped from the bill before it was approved. The new law did create a legislative task force to study the issue and make recommendations and increased the cutoff age to file suits from 48 to 51.

    In early 2020, that task force, headed by Flexer, voted unanimously to recommend that lawmakers introduce legislation that would eliminate the current statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits by victims of childhood sexual assault, abuse or exploitation. The recommendations also specified that 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. But no bill was filed. Flexer could not be reached to comment Tuesday.


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