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The Billings Gazette frequently reports on sex offenses against children. A shocking number of these crimes occurred years ago, often many years ago. Most old offenses were brought to public attention in civil lawsuits because the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution has expired. Why the delay in reporting?

It’s difficult for victims to come forward to report sex offenses, and nearly impossible when the perpetrator is an authority figure and the victim is a frightened, traumatized child.

Montana House Bill 109 would remove the statute of limitations for prosecution of felony and misdemeanor sex offenses against children.

Present law requires prosecution of felony child sexual assaults to commence within 20 years after the victim turns 18. Present law requires prosecution of misdemeanor child sex offenses to start within five years of the victim turning 18.

That limitation has prevented the state from filing charges against James Jensen, the former Miles City high school trainer now accused of molesting dozens of young boys two decades or longer ago.

The time limit has thwarted prosecution of a 1987 attack on an 8-year-old Billings girl who was raped in her home by an intruder identified by a DNA match only a few years ago.

If enacted as law, HB109 would be effective immediately. There would no longer be a statute of limitations on sex crimes against Montana children. The new law would also remove the statute of limitations on child molesting that occurred before the law was enacted and before the old statute of limitations has expired. Child molesters would no longer be able to get away with their heinous crimes because prosecution was delayed.

One goal of the civil lawsuit against Jensen is to call attention to the present limit so the criminal law will be changed, said Miles City attorney Dan Rice, who represents 31 men victimized as children. Rice said his clients want their children and other children “protected from monsters who prey on children.”

Thirty-seven states have no statute of limitations on prosecuting child sexual abuse, Rice said. Montana isn’t one of them – a fact that Jensen apparently knew because he started contacting some of his victims on social media soon after the 20-year limit had expire.

Jensen’s daughter, who has been estranged from him for many years, testified in support of HB109, saying: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence he waited until right at the statute point to contact victims just to further torment them.”

“The bill will make sure the children see justice no matter how old they are,” sponsor Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, told the committee. Dunwell said she has heard from constituents that those sexually abused as children were not able to report abuse as children because they were afraid of their abuser or ashamed of what happened to them.

There were no opponents to HB109 at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. The bill drew bipartisan support. This isn’t the first time that the Legislature had been asked to lift the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. The 2019 session must be the time to finally get this law right for children.

We call on members of the House and Senate and Gov. Steve Bullock to approve this simple, straightforward protection for Montana’s children. Make HB109 the law of Montana.

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The Billings Gazette

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