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Michigan lawmakers renew effort to give sex abuse victims more time to sue

Sexual Abuse-Michigan
Posted at 4:16 PM, Jun 06, 2023

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan lawmakers are expected to introduce bipartisan legislation Tuesday that would give victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to sue for damages as the state again looks to overhaul laws following multiple sexual abuse scandals.

The legislation, which is scheduled to appear before a committee Tuesday afternoon, would expand the civil statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse victims from age 28 to 52. If enacted, victims would also have a two-year window to sue retroactively, regardless of the time limit.

The new measures would allow victims of the late Dr. Robert Anderson at the University of Michigan and others additional time to bring lawsuits that have previously been barred by the statute of limitations. Government entities could not use the immunity defense if they knew or should have known of an accused’s prior sexual misconduct and failed to intervene.

In 2018, Michigan increased the statute of limitations to 28 years old following the conviction of Larry Nassar, who sexually abused hundreds of female athletes under the guise of medical treatment, including at Michigan State University.

Advocates say the time limit still denies delayed justice for many victims who often keep trauma to themselves, citing research that shows many victims don't come forward until their 50s. Vermont, Maine and Maryland have removed the statute of limitations for child sex crime lawsuits.

Much of the reform began after reports across the U.S. of abuse dating back decades by Roman Catholic clergy. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel opened an investigation into sexual abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church in 2019, which has resulted in eight criminal convictions to date.

Greg D’Alessandro and Brian Hurtekant spoke publicly for the first time Monday with The Associated Press about abuse they had suffered decades before at the hands of Catholic priests. Both men have been unable to bring civil lawsuits due to Michigan's statute of limitations.

D’Alessandro, who is now 45 years old, has accused two priests of sexually abusing him between the age of 9 and 13 while he was a student in metro Detroit. D’Alessandro said he had repressed memories of the abuse for years and only recently, through hours of therapy, began to understand what happened to him as a child.

“If it’s not the worst thing that one human being can do to another, especially a child in the name of God, then I don't know what is,” D’Alessandro said in a phone interview.

Both priests, Lawrence Ventline and Timothy Szott, have been identified by the Archdiocese of Detroit as having been credibly accused. Szott, who was sentenced to 18 months probation after pleading no contest to possession of child pornography in 2003, is now deceased.

Ventline's educationally limited counselor’s license was revoked by a state board in 2019 but Nessel said at the time that "the statute of limitations bars us from prosecuting Mr. Ventline for any crimes we believe he may have committed.”

The Associated Press was unable to reach Ventline for comment about the allegations.

Hurtekant, who is now 56, said his abuse began at the age of 13 following the death of his brother. The priest, James Martin Novak, had overseen his brother’s funeral and acted as his therapist as he processed the grief. The sexual abuse began in the sixth grade and continued until the ninth grade, Hurtekant said.

In 2019, the St. Therese Church in Lansing published a list of 17 priests, including Novak, who had been credibly accused of abusing minors. There were 73 allegations against the priests. Novak could not be reached for comment by the AP.

“We were children that were raised in sexual abuse,” Hurtekant said. “We deserve our day in court and for justice to be served.”

Jamie White, an attorney representing both men, said they hope to work with lawmakers to amend the current package to eliminate the civil statute of limitations.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers first announced the legislative package in April with multiple survivors of Nassar speaking in favor of it. The package would also create a “Survivors Bill of Rights," that would, among other things, require that survivors are informed of their right to access advocates, attorneys, counselors and other supports as they navigate through the reporting process.

This will be the third time the legislation is introduced in the Michigan Legislature but the first since Democrats took full control of the Legislature and governor's office this year.

Pushback has previously come from universities, schools, municipalities, businesses and the Catholic Church over the financial implications of facing an unknown number of suits for old allegations.

In a statement provided to the AP, the Michigan Catholic Conference, the official voice of the Catholic Church in Michigan on matters of public policy, said it opposed the legislation, explaining it “would unjustly require public and private entities to defend claims from many decades past.”