Will law change in Arizona help sexual abuse victims?

House Speaker Rusty Bowers argued Monday why the Legislature should approve his version of a bill that expands the time for sex abuse victims to sue their assailants -- but not as much time as they say they need. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX — A Republican dominated House panel approved changes in laws about when those who have been sexually abused can sue their assailants, but in a form that the victims and their advocates say really won’t help them at all.

And Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, who chairs the panel, refused to even let them testify.

On a party-line vote the Rules Committee approved HB 2746 to give victims until they turn 30 to file civil suits. That’s a decade longer than now allowed.

Mr. Kern said there is no reason to allow the victims who showed up to tell their own stories and explain why age 30 is insufficient. He said the more liberal version they want — giving victims seven years after they report what happened to a medical professional, with no age limit — is not about justice but “would do nothing more than line attorneys’ pockets.”

“There’s no amount of money that can help them,” Mr. Kern said.

Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, who has been pushing the broader version, said the issue is giving victims a chance not only to go after their abusers but to help ferret out the ones who may still be working with children.

“By not passing something, either with post-disclosure or with a window, we are going to continue as a state policy to allow current sexual predators to continue where they are without their being exposed,” he said.

The accusations that those who support this version of the bill are somehow impeding justice for victims drew a sharp retort from House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, who crafted this measure.

Aside from taking the age to report from 20 to 30, Mr. Bowers said the legislation clarifies that a victim can file civil suit even after age 30 if prosecutors bring criminal charges against the perpetrator. And he said there isn’t even a requirement for a conviction.

Mr. Boyer, however, pointed out that window already exists in statute, albeit in a slightly different form.

And Rep. Domingo DeGrazia, D-Tucson, who is an attorney, said that’s not exactly fair — or constitutional.

He said it ties the ability of victims older than 30 to sue to whether prosecutors bring a case, something Mr. DeGrazia said happens only when they believe they can prove the person’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard for a criminal conviction. But a jury in a civil case decides based on the preponderance of the evidence, meaning which side appears more believable.

Mr. DeGrazia also suggested that the age limit of 30 to sue appears to be “plucked from the ether,” saying there is no evidence that those who have been assaulted and abused fully realized what happened to them by that age.

Mr. Boyer showed up at the committee with several victims, all of whom were prepared to tell lawmakers that they were much older when they recognized that what happened wasn’t their fault. But Mr. Kern refused to allow any of them to speak, saying that there had been testimony earlier this session on the issue.

That’s true — to a point.

Mr. Boyer’s version was heard in the House Appropriations Committee, a version that Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, called “incredibly better.” But Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, refused to allow a vote.

And there has never been a hearing on exactly what Mr. Bowers pushed through the Rules Committee on Monday.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who supported the Mr. Bowers version, urged supporters to get behind HB 2745 because it is the only version that is moving.

“If the Legislature adjourns this session without passing this bill and having it signed, it will be a huge setback to every victim in the state of Arizona,” he said.

But Mr. Boyer said that’s not the only choice.

He and Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, have threatened to withhold their vote for the state budget unless and until there is a vote on the more liberal version. And since there are only 17 Republicans in the Senate, that could force the hand of Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, unless she can round up votes from Democrats.

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