Randall Head

State legislators stalled a bill intended to extend the statute of limitations for civil suits against those responsible for the sexual abuse of children.

Last week the State Senate Judiciary Committee put the brakes on Senate Bill 219, which aimed to temporarily end the statute of limitations on sexual abuse civil suits for a three-year period, allowing for victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue abusers or the entities whose negligence led to the abuse.

The decision to send the bill to a summer study committee came after the testimony of multiple victims and their advocates pushing for the bill’s passage. The Judiciary Committee’s chair, Sen. Randall Head (R-Logansport), led the effort to send the bill to committee for fear of causing “damage” by moving forward with the action prior to studying the issue. The move, though, was met with opposition from other committee members.

Sen. Jim Merrit (R-Indianapolis) filed Senate Bill 219 this year partially in response to recent high-profile instances of institutional failures related to protecting children from sexual abuse. Both in interviews and in testimony last week, he has cited the USA gymnastics and swimming scandals where competitors were sexually abused by coaches and similar authoritative figures, but complaints allegedly were ignored by the organizations.

“I think it’s important to have everybody accountable,” said Merritt. “As you know we have countless stories, including the USA diving, Jared Fogle, Dr. Nassar, Coach Sandusky. There’s a myriad of situations, and a myriad of examples.”

Advocates of the bill claim that victims are left with little recourse because it often takes years for them to come to terms with the abuse. During this time the seven-year statute of limitations for civil action in such a case often expires, leaving victims with few options.

Former gymnast Jennifer Woodward was among those who testified last week.

She claimed to have been abused by a gymnastics coach in Hamilton County at the age of 15. Her abuse was reported to both police and USA Gymnastics, but no official action was ever taken.

“Twenty years later, and after the Nassar scandal began to break, I received a call from an attorney representing USA gymnastics,” said Woodward. “He informed me that my complaint, along with 17 other uninvestigated complaints against various coaches, was found in a file drawer. In fact, there were two other complaints against the same coach. None had ever been looked at. And now that the three complaints against this coach are being investigated by Safesport, I’ve learned of a fourth complaint against this coach. Of course, the statute of limitations for filing a civil suit has long expired. I had done everything right. I reported the abuse to the police and gymnastics authorities, and nothing happened, and now I know there are others that, unfortunately, had to follow in my footsteps, the footsteps through sexual abuse. That’s abuse that could have been prevented if someone had taken me seriously. My abuser of at least three other women is still coaching in Hamilton County.”

An amendment to send the bill to a study committee was filed by Head prior to last week’s meeting. In explaining the move, he said opening the statute of limitations for three years had not yet fully been studied.

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“The topic of statute of limitations have some implications that have not been testified about this morning,” said Head. “If we open the statute of limitations for everyone until 2022, it’s possible that victims could get justice. But then 10 years after that there could be other people that say, ‘Wait, you need to open it up again.’ If we open it up and say there’s no statute of limitations ever, there’s another set of issues there … So I don’t know. I think we’re ready to discuss and study the issue. I don’t think we’re ready in this committee this morning to make a decision regarding the statutes of limitations and all of those implications.”

Sen. Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis) took issue with the move, drawing attention to the fact that putting a pause on the bill would further hamper the ability of victims to file suits prior to the bill’s 2022 expiration date.

“I’m just trying to figure out what the damage is,” said Taylor. “I have a zero-tolerance policy for anyone who takes advantage of children, which is totally against my ‘left-leaning views,’ but when it comes to children I have a zero tolerance for that. I’m just trying to figure out, are we trying to say the people who actually committed these crimes deserve some kind of consideration by this committee?”

Head insisted after Taylor’s probing that no one had asked him to send the bill to a study committee.

Sen. Aaron Freeman (R-Indianapolis) also said he didn’t understand Head’s decision.

“I just don’t know what’s going to be different,” said Freeman. “I understand your logic; it’s sound. I understand there’s a bunch of lawyers on this committee as I am. I get it. I just don’t know where we’re going to be. If the thought is that somebody is literally going to say we shouldn’t open this up after studying it in summer study … I don’t know who would oppose this.”

The committee voted 6-3, with two members excused, to pass Head’s amendment. The committee then voted 9-1 to be recommended to the legislative council for a summer study committee.

Dawn Price, a local advocate for the bill who gained notoriety after publicly disclosing her own story of sexual abuse as a child, said she was late to the meeting and unable to testify. She said she was disappointed by the committee’s decision to reroute the bill, but hopeful because the measure wasn’t dead in the water yet.

“I was disappointed with the outcome yet remain hopeful,” said Price. “Yes, SB219 was shelved for a year, but it was not shut down. SB219 still has a fighting chance. It provides a very important step in the right direction to provide a pathway of justice for sexual abuse victims. In addition, SB219, if passed, would become a stepping stone for the cause of abolishing all statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse in Indiana.