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Proposed law would extend time frame for sex abuse lawsuits

Joelle Casteix, a survivor of childhood sexual assault by a staffer at a Catholic school, explains Wednesday why she believes Arizona needs to give more time for victims to file civil suits. The bill is being pushed by Sens. Paul Boyer, left, and Lupe Contreras. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Joelle Casteix, a survivor of childhood sexual assault by a staffer at a Catholic school, explains Wednesday why she believes Arizona needs to give more time for victims to file civil suits. The bill is being pushed by Sens. Paul Boyer, left, and Lupe Contreras. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers want to give child sex abuse victims more time to sue their assailants, saying they need more time to process and understand what happened to them.

SB 1255 would provide a seven-year window to bring a civil claim to court. And the clock would not start running until the victim turns 18 or the person first reports the assault or abuse to a medical provider, whichever comes later.

Current law has a two-year statute of limitations. And Joelle Casteix, who said she was raped, impregnated and given a sexually-transmitted disease while a teen attending a Catholic high school in California, said that's not nearly enough.

It was only when she turned 32, she said, that she felt comfortable coming forward and filing suit, something she could do only after California changed its laws to extend its own time period for litigation.

That lawsuit, Casteix said, resulted in her getting documents that the school knew about abuse, that he had signed a confession to assaulting not just her but other girls, "and he was allowed to resign and quietly move on to high schools and universities where he continued to work with children.''

It is what a lawsuit can do, she said, that makes such legislation important.

"It's not about the money,'' Casteix said. What it is about, she said, is accountability: the ability to demand every single document that those who shielded the abuser have.

More to the point, she said, is getting the person exposed so they can't harm others.

"It takes survivors of sexual abuse decades to come forward and talk about what happened to them,'' Casteix said. And that, she said, means exposing their assailants.

"These adults are still in our schools, our churches, our youth-serving organizations and our sport groups right now,'' she said. "More than 90 percent of the child predators out there have never been exposed.''

Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, said the issue is personal for him, too, at least indirectly.

"I stand here as a proud Catholic,'' he said. But Contreras said there was a predator at his parish church.

"So I know the victims of that time period,'' he said.

"It's saying, you know what, we're tired of the cover-up, we're tired of taking the voices of these young individuals,'' Contreras explained. "Since that, their life is no longer the same.''

Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, the prime sponsor, said the two-year limit on sexual abuse claims makes no sense. He pointed out that civil suits over the terms of a written contract can be brought up to six years after.

He also said more than 40 states have statutes of limitations on these kinds of abuse cases longer than in Arizona. The result, said Boyer, is victims abused elsewhere have more rights.

At this point the measure faces an uncertain future: It has not yet even been assigned to a committee for a hearing.

Boyer did manage to push an identical measure through the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, but just barely on a 4-3 vote.

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, complained that a seven-year window was "putting organizations that may not have had good procedures in place in the past .... at a tremendous financial risk.'' That brought an angry reaction from Contreras.

"I have people that are still hurt,'' he told Worsley, saying "they all have to pay for the harm they've done.''

It died because it was never allowed to go to the full Senate for a vote.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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