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A bill that would have increased the statute of limitations on civil actions for victims of child sex abuse was shot down during a lengthy and contentious committee debate.
Senate Bill 1101 would have given victims until the age of 30 to file a civil action against an alleged perpetrator and also would have opened up a one-time window for one year that would have allowed for civil actions to be brought without any time restriction.
The civil window portion of the bill ended up being what doomed the legislation in the House Appropriations committee.
“What that does is it removes the idea of justice,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, of the one-year civil window.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, was joined by victims in arguing the importance and necessity of the one-year window in a meeting that lasted two-and-a-half hours and ended with a failed vote to appeal the chairwoman’s decision not to vote on the bill.
Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, held back tears as she voted against holding a formal vote on the bill, echoing the sentiments of her Republican colleagues that the one-year civil window would cause more problems than it would solve.
During the meeting and in an interview later with the Arizona Mirror, Boyer said he had intended to step down from his seat after this legislative session, but now intends to stay in order to get some form of this legislation passed.
In addition to controversies around the civil window and how the bill came to be, special interest groups involved with insurance companies also lobbied against the bill.
“I know how emotional this all is,” lobbyist for the Mutual Insurance Company of Arizona, Michael Low said. “No one is in any way condoning sexual assault. Its horrific.”
But Low called the civil window “unfair” and said it would open up all kinds of institutions up to a large number of possible claims.
Boyer saw it differently.
“This is the most important bill you’ll have in front of you all year, all term,” Boyer said in his opening remarks.
The bill was killed in committee on a 4-7 vote along party lines.
‘Worst in the nation’
Boyer said the genesis for the bill came from the Larry Nassar case.
Nassar was a doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team who has been accused of sexually molesting as many as 250 girls and young women. He pleaded guilty to 10 counts of sexual assault of minors and has been sentenced to more than 140 years in state and federal prisons in the cases.
Boyer said the case made him look into where Arizona stands when it comes to how and when a victim can bring a civil suit against an alleged perpetrator.
“We are one of the worst in the nation,” Boyer told the Mirror.
In Arizona, once a victim turns 18, they have two years to file a civil suit against an abuser. After that, they cannot file a lawsuit. Boyer is seeking to increase that window so people up to the age of 30 can file.
However, Boyer admitted that even that much time is not enough. Many children who are victims of sexual abuse do not come forward earlier due to either repressing memories, a lack of understanding of what happened or a lack of support for coming forward, according to psychologists.
One victim who spoke before the committee emphasized this in his testimony.
Gilbert resident Gregory Kelly was abused by former Judge William Bradley when he was 11 and kept it a secret for 30 years.
“I would describe this type of abuse as the closest thing to death that I had ever experienced,” Kelly said in emotional testimony. “I was 11 years old, I didn’t know a man could do such a thing to a boy.”
When Kelly was finally able to face Bradley and try to bring a suit against him, he found that the statute of limitations prevented him from doing so.
Then in 2009, Delaware passed a similar bill to what Boyer tried to get passed and expanded the window for civil lawsuits. Kelly saw it as his chance.
He represented himself and decided he wanted to expose Bradley, and as the suit gained more media attention, more and more people began coming forward with similar stories.
Once the accusations began to pile up against Bradey, he admitted to what he had done, stepped down from his judicial post and was disbarred.
However, it was a short-lived victory for Kelly.
His brother, who had also been a victim, took his own life last November, in part due to the trauma he sustained from his past experiences, Kelly told the House committee while trying to hold back tears.
Personal connections and Arizona ties
Two members of the Arizona legislature at the committee meeting had deep personal connections to the issue.
Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Phoenix, and Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, both spoke about how the issue of sexual assault and abuse had affected the communities they grew up in.
Both men had friends who were victims of sexual abuse as children, one of which took his own life.
Espinoza, who sits on the House Appropriations committee, got choked up when discussing how 12 friends of his had been victims.
He said that he couldn’t sleep the previous night because he had been thinking about his friends and the trauma they experienced. Ultimately, it was Espinoza who attempted to overrule Cobb’s decision to not give the bill a vote.
But the personal experiences of those on the committee is not the only high profile connection Arizona has to the issue.
In 2017, a man came forward accusing accusing Bishop Emeritus Thomas O’Brien of sexual abuse.
O’Brien had been in charge during an era when the Catholic Church in Phoenix had been accused of covering up hundreds of cases, and came to light at the same time similar revelations were being made in Boston.
The case was recently settled out of court after O’Brien died, and the exact agreements of the settlement are unknown. One of the last court filings ordered that many parts of the case will remain confidential.
Attorney Timothy Hale represented the man known only as Joseph W. in the case against O’Brien, and has represented a number of similar high profile cases. He called Arizona’s statute of limitations on civil lawsuits “archaic.”
“The prioritization of fairness to these defendants is hypocritical,” he said.
Hale also echoed an argument made in the committee hearing by Boyer and the victims.
“The threat is not just from the perpetrators, but from the institutions that help cover this up,” Hale said, adding that Boyer’s bill would allow for the institutions to be held accountable in civil court. “These (filing) windows allow the ability to shed a light on entities that might have been covering up these crimes.”
While Farnsworth and other Republicans on the committee voiced concern that Boyer’s bill would lead to frivolous lawsuits, Hale rejected that notion.
“The burden is completely on the plaintiff,” Hale said. “If its a false claim, it’s going to get dismissed.”
Low, the lobbyist for the Arizona insurance companies, said there needs to be a balance between the rights of plaintiffs and defendants, adding that “the more time that passes, you have real questions about the legitimacy of people’s recollections.”
Many states have begun opening up their statute of limitations, as well as adding civil windows.
Nationally, 15 states have removed the statute of limitations entirely for child sex crimes.
“The kind of conduct that had come out against O’Brien… is only scratching the surface of what has likely happened in Arizona,” Hale said.
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