Bill Would Allow Lawsuits in Old Sexual Abuse Cases

Two Wisconsin legislators introduced a bill Wednesday that would provide a three-year grace period for the filing of lawsuits by victims of childhood sexual abuse whose cases otherwise would be too old to pursue. And, instead of limiting that window of opportunity to victims of clergy abuse, the bill would open it to people victimized by anyone.

Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) and Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) also would repeal all time limits, known as statutes of limitation, for civil suits by future victims.

If their bipartisan proposal, called the Child Victim’s Act, gains enough traction for approval before the Legislature’s session ends next spring – a difficult feat – Wisconsin would join the ranks of a small but growing number of states that have eliminated statutes of limitation for such cases and/or opened the courthouse doors for lawsuits in cases that otherwise would be too old to file.

“It’s really an emerging, grass-roots movement, and it’s definitely on the move,” said Marci Hamilton, a consultant to the legislators. She is a professor at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York and author of a new book on statutes of limitation.

Focusing the bill on religious organizations, as some efforts here have done, is not constitutional, she said.

“The big problem is that the clergy abuse is such a small percentage of the larger numbers,” Hamilton said. “Incest is 70 percent to 80 percent of all childhood sexual abuse.”

Lassa and Suder said Wednesday that they have conferred with national legal experts and have support from organizations such as the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children. They also have spoken with Democratic and Republican colleagues and committee chairmen to gain support.

“It won’t be an easy task, but we have bipartisan support,” Suder said. “Senator Lassa and I . . . are confident that this legislation will make it to the governor this session.”

Suder said victims need more time because “most children who have been sexually abused aren’t even able to speak about their attack until well into adulthood, if ever,” and 90% never report the abuse to police.

“We think it is really important to get at this issue and identify the child molesters and pedophiles that have not been caught through the criminal system,” Lassa said. “If you look at the statistics from the FBI, they are saying that one in four girls is sexually abused before the age of 18, and for boys it’s one in six by that age. So it is an urgent epidemic.”

Their bill is modeled after legislation in Delaware, where both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously voted this year to repeal the statute of limitation for civil suits in new incidents of childhood sexual abuse and to provide a two-year window for victims of past abuse to sue. Alaska and Maine abolished statutes of limitation for criminal and civil cases involving the sexual abuse of children without providing a window for old cases, and other statutes of limitation bills are pending, Hamilton said.

This is not the first attempt to ease Wisconsin’s laws and court interpretations, which Hamilton describes as among the most difficult in the nation for victims of childhood sexual abuse.

A Wisconsin law that took effect in 2004 allows survivors of future child sexual abuse to file civil suits until their 35th birthdays. It also extended the statute of limitations for criminal charges until the victim turns 45. In addition, the law says that a church can be sued for failing to report child sexual abuse occurring after the law passed and for not preventing abuse when religious leaders know of a prior incident.