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New compromise bill a “step forward,” but not solution, for Miles City sex-abuse survivors

Posted at 6:28 PM, Feb 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-28 14:31:52-05

BILLINGS – State lawmakers Wednesday unveiled a bipartisan bill that would compromise two pieces of legislation to extend Montana’s statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers joined forces for a joint press conference to unveil the new bill at the Montana statehouse.

However, victims of accused molestation by a former Miles City athletic trainer are speaking out about the new compromise bill, saying they’d hoped for more.

Plaintiffs in a massive civil case filed back in September against 78-year-old James Jensen spoke to MTN News following Wednesday’s announcement of the new compromise bill.

“It’s a good first step,” said one victim.

All the victims agreed to speak with MTN News on a condition of anonymity.

The compromise bill is still in the early stages of being drafted, but will contain elements of three other bills that were previously introduced, to address childhood sexual abuse in Montana.

Democratic Rep.Shane Morigeau, from Missoula, initially introduced House Bill 202, which would have removed time limits for childhood victims of sexual abuse to file a civil case against their abuser.

This new compromise bill does not do that but instead increases the time limit to nine years.

Victims would be able to file suit after they turn 18, and the compromise bill allows lawsuits to be filed within two years after the abuser admits his or her crime or is convicted, or evidence is produced showing that the responsible party knew of the abuse.

“If this bill is passed as is, Montana will take a giant step toward protecting our children. Let’s be clear, the bill is certainly not done,” said one Miles City sex abuse survivor.

Under current state law, a victim of childhood sexual abuse can bring suit no more than three years after they turn 18 or three years after they, as an adult, “discover the injury” from sexual abuse that occurred while they were children.

The compromise bill still would also remove limitations on bringing criminal charges against child molesters, at any time.

“Ultimately this bill, it does a lot to protect the interests of childhood survivors of sex abuse in Montana,” said Morigeau.

Survivors in the Miles City sex abuse said statistically most victims don’t end up reporting their childhood abuse until their 40s and 50s and the new comprehensive bill would leave a small window for reporting.

“In a few years, we will be looking back on the civil statutes, and be scratching our heads with these uninformed restrictions and realize these limits only serve to protect insurance companies and child molesters… and not children,” said a survivor.

The bill also will include stricter reporting requirements for entities or people such as caregivers or teachers, who learn of potential sexual abuse of children.

The new bill has been championed by freshman lawmaker Bill Mercer, a Billings Republican who said the motive for the changes is to create a structure where victims will feel compelled to come forward earlier.

“The goal is to send a message to victims or parents anyone aware of victimization to report it right away,” said Mercer. “Every time we have a predator that is not intercepted through an effective investigation, there is an extremely high risk that there will be another victim, and another victim and another victim.”

Mercer, a former U.S. attorney for Montana, opposed removing the statute of limitations entirely for civil lawsuits filed by sex-abuse victims.

He said few states have taken that step.

“That’s probably because, historically, the longer you get away from the conduct, the harder it is for that trial to be a search for the truth,” Mercer said at the news conference.

Still, sex-abuse survivors from Miles City said Mercer should answer specific questions about how he arrived at his age recommendations.

“Cherry picking state examples, and randomly picking an age where victims are supposed to ‘report’ is disingenuous at best. Arbitrarily limiting ages and discovery rules are not based in science and protect insurance companies and child molesters,” said a survivor.

Morigeau said he intends to work toward repealing the statute of limitations in the future – but that he’s willing to compromise to get something positive enacted now.

“I did hear out my colleagues on why we wanted to do that,” he said. “I felt that moving forward with a bill that helps victims today was something that we needed to move forward on.”

The civil case filed by 31 men who said Jensen sexually molested them while they were student-athletes at Custer County high school decades ago, already falls beyond the current Montana civil statute of limitations law.

MTN’s Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison provided information for this story