PHOENIX - State lawmakers voted Monday to give childhood victims of sexual abuse an entire lifetime to sue those who assaulted them.
Without dissent, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure to repeal the existing laws that require civil suits to be filed within two years of a victim's turning 18. For incidents that take place in the future, there will be no statute of limitations.
SB 1292 also opens a window for those who were abused in the past 35 years, giving them one year from the time the law takes effect to file suit, even if the time limit had previously run out.
But legislators agreed to extend the time allowed to file a suit only for cases based on a defendant's "direct or intentional conduct."
Sen. Amanda Aguirre, D-Yuma, who wrote the legislation, said it would give sex-abuse victims added time to go after both the perpetrator and anyone who knew of the abuse.
But she said it would leave the current time limits in place for lawsuits against churches or school districts for simply being negligent in supervising their employees. And she said it also would bar late-filed lawsuits, even if a victim could show that an organization or even a specific person had suspicions someone was a molester but failed to act.
The measure now goes to the full Senate.
Ron Johnson, who lobbies on behalf of the state's three Catholic bishops, acknowledged that he has been working to limit the measure from its original scope. But Johnson said any limit is not to shield those responsible. Rather, he said, it would ensure that businesses, churches and schools would be able to buy insurance. Without some limit on litigation, Johnson said, no coverage would be available.
He isn't the only one pushing for limits. Jack LaSota, who lobbies on behalf of the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust, said school districts that buy liability insurance through his organization want some assurances that the law won't be changed so much that it would open the door to lawsuits filed after decades solely because someone who turned out to be a molester happened to be employed years ago.
Monday's vote followed a plea from Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeau, who told lawmakers last week that he was the victim of abuse as a child. It's important to provide a civil alternative to those who were abused but could not get justice in criminal proceedings, he said.
But Yuma County Attorney Jon Smith told legislators that it's often difficult to get a conviction in these cases, unless there is a witness other than the victim, or the assailant confesses. Civil suits have a lower standard of proof, he said.
Jeff Dion, acting executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, said: "Pedophiles don't retire. Even when the victim waits 30 years to disclose the abuse, if the perpetrator is still alive, we find them at 70 or 80 years old, in walkers and wheelchairs, continuing to molest kids."
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