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Lawmakers unveil bipartisan compromise to crack down on child molesters

HELENA – State lawmakers Wednesday unveiled a bipartisan compromise to crack down on sexual abusers of children in Montana – although the sponsor of the upcoming bill said it’s “not perfect” and that he would prefer stronger steps.

“Ultimately this bill, it does a lot to protect the interests of childhood survivors of sex abuse in Montana,” said Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula. “While it may not be perfect, it brings Montana law forward significantly.”

The lead attorney for victims of a former Miles City athletic trainer, accused last fall of molesting scores of high school boys decades earlier, also told MTN News Wednesday that the proposed bill is more protective of insurance companies than victims of sexual abuse.

“Why are we compromising children on behalf of out-of-state insurance companies … that, God forbid, might have to pay claims to people who are owed as victims of childhood sex abuse?” said John Heenan of Billings.

The compromise bill, still being drafted, will contain elements of three other bills that had been introduced earlier, to address what Morigeau called an “epidemic” of childhood sexual abuse in Montana.

Those bills removed entirely the time limits on charging alleged child molesters for crimes in the past and for suing them or others alleged to have failed to prevent the sexual abuse.

The compromise bill still would remove the limitations on bringing criminal charges against child molesters, at any time, but maintains or only slightly expands the time limits for civil suits.

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 increases to nine years the time limit that victims can file suit, after they turn 18, and 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.

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

“The guiding principle here is, how can we have an effective response when sexual abuse occurs?” said Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings. “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 a news conference where lawmakers of both parties stood in support of the compromise bill.

Heenan said he sees no reason to place time limits on civil lawsuits by childhood sex-abuse victims – unless insurance companies need protection against the claims.

“I’ll never be satisfied until there is no compromise, and victims always have the right to justice,” he said in an interview. “I don’t need a poll to know that the vast, vast majority of Montanans don’t want a statute of limitations (on these lawsuits).”

Morigeau said he, too, 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.”

Mike Dennison

Mike Dennison

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