Michigan Senate passes legislation that gives sexual abuse victims more options

LANSING, Mich. -- The Michigan Senate on Wednesday passed bills inspired by the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case, voting to retroactively give the imprisoned sports doctor's victims and other accusers more time to sue, restrict the ability of governments to claim immunity from lawsuits and require more people to report suspected abuse to authorities.

The legislation was sent to the House for further consideration. It had received pushback from universities, governments, businesses and the Roman Catholic Church over the broader financial implications of facing an unknown number of suits for old claims.

"This package of bills delivers justice, justice for the children who were sexually assaulted," said a lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Margaret O'Brien of Portage.

Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, where Nassar worked for decades, has been sued by more than 250 girls and women. Among the school's arguments in federal court are that many accusers waited too long to sue and that it has immunity.

People sexually abused as children in Michigan generally have until their 19th birthdays to sue, which critics argue is inadequate because victims often wait to report the abuse due to fear or because they repressed it. Under a bill spearheaded by Nassar victims and approved 28-7, those abused as children in 1997 or later would have a one-year window in which to file suit.

In recent days, the Michigan Catholic Conference, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a former state Supreme Court justice and lobbying organizations representing universities, K-12 schools and local governments urged legislators to delay voting or to only advance less divisive proposals. Those include adding college employees, school bus drivers and youth sports coaches, trainers and volunteers to the state's list of people who must report suspected abuse or neglect to child protective services, and stiffening criminal penalties for those mandatory reporters who fail to act.

Michigan State's interim president, John Engler, visited the senate Wednesday to address some of the legislation. Engler spent several hours in Lansing and met with the majority leader of the senate in his office. Engler's spokesman, John Truscott, said Engler spoke in favor of some of the legislation and asked the senators to hold off on voting on other bills until a more thorough fiscal analysis could be done to see what impact they might have. Truscott said he wasn't sure which bills Engler supported and which he thought needed to be researched further.

"We share the Senate's concern for making sure nothing like the crimes committed by Larry Nassar ever happens again," Michigan State spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said. "But opening the door to massive numbers of retroactive lawsuits and eroding governmental immunity has the potential for many unexpected consequences."

"I am appalled to know that MSU president Engler personally came to the Senate to try to stop this vital legislation," said Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse and a catalyst for the package of bills that was passed Wednesday. "He chose to stand against every child and every sexual assault victim in the entire state, to protect an institution. That is despicable and says everything we need to know about what he will value as a leader. Just as terrible, the MSU board let him do it."

Michigan State trustee Brian Mosallam declined to comment when asked about Engler's decision to visit the senate Wednesday and said he admired Denhollander "for her courage and bravery as well as the rest of our courageous survivors."

Truscott said the proposed bills could potentially cost the state and businesses within the state "billions and billions of increased cost." Truscott said Engler's concerns were about the overall economic impact the bills could have on the state and not just on Michigan State.

"I think it would be inappropriate for somebody to try to cast an opinion on something they know nothing about," Truscott said when he was told that Denhollander had made critical remarks about Engler's visit to the senate. "Here you have people who don't have experience in legislative process making comment about legislative process."

Denhollander is an attorney with a background in public policy. She previously worked for a state representative.

Republican Sen. Mike Shirkey of Clarklake, who voted against many of the bills, said some are "precedent-setting and very dangerous -- things that we don't have any clue what the unintended consequences are."

But supporters countered that Michigan's laws related to child sexual abuse lag behind those of many other states.

"At the end of the day, we have to decide whether we want to stand with the survivors or whether we want to stand with the big institutions on this," said Democratic Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. "I think it's fairly simple where we should be morally, and that's where I'm going to be."

Democratic Sen. David Knezek, sponsor of the bill that would extend the civil statute of limitations, said earlier Wednesday that it "allows every single individual who was a victim of Dr. Nassar's to seek justice. ... We have a really unique opportunity to take Michigan out of the dark ages when it comes to our laws surrounding sexual assault, to give a voice to the victims who have been denied that voice for decades in some cases."

Nassar's accusers, many of whom gave impact statements at sentencing hearings in January and February, have expressed outrage over opposition to the legislation. After the state's 15 public universities expressed concerns, Amanda Smith,?who testified against Nassar at a sentencing hearing, tweeted: "I guess this just shows me how much a human being is actually worth to them ... nothing, we mean nothing to them."

Mick Grewal, a lawyer for the survivors, estimated that 81 of the 255 who have sued Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and others will face no time-limit issues because they were assaulted within three years of filing suit, are still minors or they sued before their 19th birthday. The statute of limitations for the rest should not apply, according to a newly filed motion in federal court, because the defendants "fraudulently concealed" the abuse for years despite some girls having raised concerns with coaches and trainers.

Before the vote, the Senate amended the time-limits bill to exclude those who allege they were abused at age 18 or older from retroactively suing.

Information from ESPN's Dan Murphy and The Associated Press was used in this report.