Should churches and others be held accountable for past sex abuse? Colorado voters may decide

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Sen. Jessie Danielson, center, during a press conference at the Colorado State Capitol while introducing the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Amendment, Jan. 31, 2024. She is surrounded by legislative supporters and survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

More people who survived childhood sexual abuse could gain the ability to sue the perpetrators and their employers — if Colorado voters agree to a constitutional amendment proposed by state lawmakers.

If it’s eventually passed this November, the amendment would open the door for lawsuits that go back years or decades against organizations from churches to the Boy Scouts of America. Currently, those kinds of lawsuits can only go back a few years.

“You will not be forgotten. The state of Colorado is not going to forget you. And we’re going to pass this measure to make sure that there is accountability assigned to the harm that was caused,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat, flanked by survivors of sex abuse at a Capitol press conference Tuesday morning.

State lawmakers have already tried to expand survivors’ legal powers. A law passed in 2021 similarly allowed retroactive lawsuits for survivors of childhood sexual abuse — but it was struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court this year.

The court found the earlier law exceeded the legislature’s constitutional power because it applied retroactively to past events. The only way around that defeat may be to change the state constitution itself — which is what the lawmakers and advocates are now trying to do.

Randy Kady, 57, stood at Tuesday’s press conference alongside a photograph of him as a young boy. Around the time the photo was taken in the early 1970s, he was being preyed upon at Village East Elementary School in Aurora, he said. 

“I want you to take a good look at me,” he told the audience.  “I’m here to do what I couldn’t do when I was being molested by my first-grade teacher — to speak out.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Child sexual abuse survivor Randy Kady of Loveland speaks during a press conference at the Colorado State Capitol in support of the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Amendment, Jan. 31, 2024.

Kady and his parents had always been open with each other about what happened, he said. But the full details of the situation — including the teacher’s alleged abuse of more than 30 other boys — only came into focus after Kady’s mother’s death, when he found newspaper clippings in her belongings. 

“To realize that she had saved all this information — at the time, I was like, ‘Why would she do this?’” he said in an interview. “But [now] I understand that she wanted me to have an understanding of what was going on around me in the world and how it was handled.”

Kady now believes that school officials covered up the molestation, allowing the teacher to resign for “personal reasons.” And he says the proposed constitutional amendment could allow him and others to seek justice.

“People need to heal, and that's what this amendment will do,” he said.

Organizations such as the Colorado Catholic Conference have warned that retroactive lawsuits could expose them to unsustainable financial costs, saying that they are already taking action to address the past. Settlements and judgments in individual cases can easily run into the millions — and others have grown much larger, including the Boy Scouts of America’s multi-billion dollar settlement with more than 80,000 plaintiffs.

In Colorado, the Catholic Church has paid more than $6 million to survivors under an agreement with the state’s attorney general. But survivors and advocates say that’s not enough, and they want to help survivors from organizations far beyond the church’s walls.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Sen. Jessie Danielson gestures during a press conference at the Colorado State Capitol while introducing the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Amendment, Jan. 31, 2024.

The proposed amendment is starting out at the legislature. If it wins approval from supermajorities in the House and Senate, it can appear on the Nov. 2024 ballot. Alternatively, if the legislature doesn’t pass the measure, then advocates would instead have to gather tens of thousands of signatures from across the state to put the question to voters — a very costly endeavor.

If it does appear on the ballot, the amendment would need to win ‘yes’ votes from at least 55 percent of voters to take effect. And even then, one more thing would be left to do: In 2025, the legislature would have to pass another law to actually allow for the survivor’s retroactive lawsuits.

“We have to amend the constitution or else there's no chance that we could ever come back and pass the kind of laws that could protect these kids,” said Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Democratic cosponsor.

The measure is being cosponsored by Danielson, Fields, Rep. Monica Duran, and Rep. Mike Weissman. All are Democrats, but they are expecting strong Republican support.

The amendment follows other changes meant to increase accountability. Colorado no longer has civil or criminal statutes of limitations for sex abuse against children. But those changes did not apply to many people already living with trauma.