Victims of child sexual abuse would have more time to file civil lawsuits, and the statute of limitations for child sex crimes would be eliminated, under a bill advanced by an Iowa Senate subcommittee following emotional testimony Thursday.
However, a proposed amendment to Senate File 107 would remove a key provision that says victims of alleged child sexual abuse who are now barred from filing civil lawsuits under Iowa’s statute of limitations would be given a three-year window to commence lawsuits.
The bill was sent to the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee following testimony from three men who spoke of being sexually abused by clergy members as minors.
Bill LaHay, of Des Moines, who participated as an adult in a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles after sexual abuse he experienced as a child, urged lawmakers to open a window for abuse victims to file civil lawsuits. He said it would help restore the balance of justice.
“That window gives daylight,” said LaHay, who wiped away tears as he spoke. “Prevention is part of what you want to do with this.”
The removal of the window would eliminate some of the most serious concerns about the bill from the Iowa Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic bishops of Iowa, and the Iowa Association of School Boards. They contend it would be nearly impossible to mount a legal defense against lawsuits involving incidents that occurred perhaps 30 or 40 years ago after witnesses have died and records have been destroyed.
Opening a window for lawsuits in Iowa would likely have its biggest effect on the Catholic Church, which has paid out more than $2.5 billion in damages nationwide because of past incidents involving more than 16,500 victims allegedly abused by religious members.
The Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul filed for bankruptcy in January after the Minnesota Legislature approved the Minnesota Child Victim’s Act. The Minnesota law, passed in 2013, opened a three-year window for filing new lawsuits alleging sexual abuse that otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations. About 20 alleged victims of clergy abuse have filed civil suits against the Minnesota archdiocese because of the law, and church officials have reportedly received more than 100 notices of potential claims.
Paul Koeniguer, of Des Moines, also urged support for the bill, explaining how he couldn’t even acknowledge being sexually abused by a clergy member until he was nearly 50 years old. He said he had been too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone.
Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, who chaired the subcommittee, thanked the abuse victims and told them not to apologize for their tears. But she said with deadlines for legislative action approaching, she is considering amendments to make progress on a bill that can win approval in the House and Senate and be signed by Gov. Terry Branstad.
“Sometimes we can’t get as far as I would like to go,” Petersen said. However, she added that she wants to have another conversation with lawmakers about including the open window for lawsuits in the bill.
Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, joined Petersen in supporting the bill, but Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said afterward he was still struggling to make a decision. He said he greatly sympathizes with abuse victims. But as a lawyer he also recognizes it could be difficult for a church or school to defend itself in a lawsuit alleging wrongdoing that occurred decades ago.
Under current Iowa law, criminal charges must be filed within 10 years after a victim reaches adulthood in cases of first, second or third-degree sexual abuse. Under the proposed amendment to the bill, perpetrators of such crimes would never be off the hook.
In addition, the bill says the time for filing a civil lawsuit relating to sexual abuse of a minor would be extended from the current one year after a person turns 18 to a period of 25 years after a person reaches age 18.