HELENA – State lawmakers plan to craft a new, single bill to make it easier to detect and hold accountable adults who sexually abuse children in Montana in criminal and civil legal actions.
Rep. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told MTN News Thursday the new bill would supplant several other measures, including one that removed any time limitations on when sex-abuse victims could sue their alleged abusers for damages.
The new bill, which will be introduced next month, would not remove those limits entirely and also would strengthen requirements on reporting alleged sexual abuse of children, Doane said.
“If (sexual predators) aren’t reported to law enforcement, if they’re not taken off the street then these cases are going to keep going,” he said. “To protect children we need to get these cases reported and, when they unfortunately happen, we need to get the predator off the street.”
Doane also said creating one bill would solve any potential problems of trying to coordinate the language in multiple bills.
The new bill likely would still expand when sex-abuse victims can file suit, but not eliminate those limits, said Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, who sponsored the original bill to remove the restrictions.
“I think this kind of (approach) gets it to one place, and everyone’s on the same page and we’re moving one bill together,” he told MTN News. “I’ve been on board with that from the first time that we discussed this.”
Morigeau and other sponsors brought the bills in the wake of highly publicized cases of child sexual abuse, including former Miles City high school athletic trainer James Jensen, accused of molesting hundreds of boys during his career.
But Morigeau’s House Bill 202, which was heard by the House Judiciary Committee last month, ran into opposition from those who said it went too far in removing time limitations for civil lawsuits.
Among the opponents is one of the nation’s largest insurance trade groups, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.
In a Jan. 17 letter to the Judiciary Committee, the group’s regional vice president for state affairs said removing time limits on filing civil suits “is rife with unacceptable due process implications which are bad for society in the aggregate.”
Christian Lataj also said the judicial system could become “inundated with legal cases plagued by serious evidentiary problems resulting from the assertion of very old claims.”
Insurance companies can be the ones who end up paying all or part of the damages in civil lawsuits filed by victims of sex abuse. In the Jensen case, for example, the Miles City School District is a defendant and likely has liability insurance.
Under current state law, victims of sexual abuse must file a lawsuit alleging damages within three years of the incident occurring or within three years of when they “discover the injury.”
HB202 removed these time limitations entirely.
Morigeau said Thursday that details on the new bill are still being discussed, but that he expects it will increase the time limit on when sexual-abuse victims can file suit against their abusers, seeking civil damages.
Another bill, House Bill 109 from Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, would remove any time limits on when child sex-abuse crimes can be prosecuted, if the abuser is an adult.
Morigeau and Doane said that element may be in the new bill.
Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News