Five weeks ago, Montanans gathered in Helena to tell the House Judiciary Committee to lift the statute of limitations on criminal prosecution of child molesters.
House Bill 109 should already be on Gov. Bullock's desk. Instead, this urgently needed legislation languishes in House Judiciary Committee.
Two horrendous Montana cases argue for lifting the time limit on prosecuting child molesters.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the state of Montana, seeking to prosecute Ronald Dwight Tipton for breaking into a Billings home and repeatedly raping an 8-year-old girl in 1987. A DNA sample obtained from Tipton through an unrelated criminal case matches a sample found at the crime scene 30 years ago, but the evidence came to light too late to prosecute Tipton under Montana law. The Montana Supreme Court and the nation's highest court upheld the state's statute of limitations. That law must be changed.
In the case of James "Doc" Jensen, accused of sexually assaulting dozens of Custer County District High School students over his decades of work as the school's athletic trainer, many victims realized that he had abused them when Jensen started contacting them last year on Facebook. About 30 men have joined in a civil lawsuit against Jensen and the school district, but it's too late to prosecute under Montana criminal law.
House Bill 109 wouldn't affect the Jensen case because the statute of limitations has expired, but sponsor Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell proposes that the prosecution time limit will be eliminated for all child sexual abuse for which the limit has not yet expired. From the date HB109 becomes law, there would be no time limit for prosecuting sex crimes against Montana children.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, told Lee Montana Newspapers that he wants to have a new committee bill that combines changes in the criminal statute of limitations, changes in the civil statute of limitations and fines for certain people who fail to report child sexual abuse. Doane told the reporter that such a bill would be exempt from the March 2 transmittal deadline because adding fines makes it a "revenue bill."
That plan should make proponents of HB109 uneasy. What is the purpose of this committee bill that has yet to be made public?
Montana law already requires school officials, teachers, health care professional and a long list of other workers responsible for care of children to report "known or suspected child abuse or neglect." Montana law already says that any mandatory reporter who fails to report "is civilly liable for the damages proximately caused by such failure" and is "guilty of a misdemeanor." It is unclear what changes the possible future committee bill would make and why.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, proposes to do away with the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse. Some Republican legislators, including Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, are trying to halt efforts to lift the civil lawsuit time limits. Mercer, a former U.S. attorney for Montana, told The Gazette that statutes should encourage victims to come forward with their claims as soon as possible.
However, in cases of child sexual abuse, victims often don't disclose these traumatic crimes until they are middle-aged, often older than 50, according to Child USA — and many daily newspaper reports.
It would be unconscionable if attempts to strengthen Montana laws to hold child abusers accountable wound up actually weakening those laws. It would be outrageous if our Legislature and governor failed to eliminate the criminal prosecution time limit now that they know how the law failed children in the Billings and Miles City cases.
We call on lawmakers to support abolishing the criminal statute of limitations for sex crimes against children. The best option for doing that is to pass House Bill 109, which already has nine sponsors. Incredibly, none are Republicans. Surely, there are members of the GOP who want to close the loophole that has allowed child molesters to escape prosecution. Make this a bipartisan priority: Pass HB109.
And don't reduce victims' rights to sue civilly.