LANSING, Mich. — Bipartisan legislation in Michigan that would help victims of imprisoned sports doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse move forward with lawsuits was in limbo Wednesday amid pushback from universities, the Catholic Church and others.
The Republican-led Senate was considering bills to retroactively extend the statute of limitations to sue and restrict governments’ ability to claim immunity. Senators discussed the bills privately for a second straight day and planned to resume session later in the afternoon, more than two weeks after Nassar’s accusers — including Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber — helped unveil the measures at the Capitol.
Michigan State University, 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. Under the legislation spearheaded by Nassar victims, those abused as children in 1993 or later could sue until their 48th birthdays, while those assaulted in adulthood would have 30 years to file a claim from the time of the abuse.
Amber McCann, spokeswoman for GOP Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, said it is possible that senators could pass some bills but drop others, "but those discussions are still ongoing. The concern is generally about the broad-reaching legal implications and any unintended consequences from the bills that just have not been thoroughly considered."
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 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.
Some groups cited concerns about the financial implications of facing an unknown number of lawsuits for old claims.
"Civil retroactivity would hold the people and taxpayers who support today’s churches, schools, civic organizations, and local and state government financially accountable for allegations from decades past," the Catholic Conference, the church’s lobbying arm, said in a statement.
Democrats criticized the possibility that the bills to extend the time limit to sue and limit governmental immunity defence could be shelved.
"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 Sen Curtis Hertel Jr. "I think it’s fairly simply 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 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, victim Amanda Smith tweeted: "I guess this just shows me how much a human being is actually worth to them … nothing, we mean nothing to them."