Child sexual abuse survivors try to flip just one vote as GOP senators unite against liability measure

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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.

When she couldn't get the elevator at her Denver hotel to work, Angie Witt started to panic. She just wanted to get back to her room, and yet the lift refused to budge. A tide of dread and fear rose around her in the elevator car.

The feeling had been building since she had landed at Denver’s airport. It was the first time she’d returned to Colorado after years of avoiding the place. Witt had suffered years of sexual abuse as a child here, and returning had triggered horrific memories, she said in a recent interview. It all threatened to overwhelm her.

“I was very scared,” she said. “I was so scared that I couldn't figure out how to make my elevator work.”

She had come on a mission. She’d be going to the Colorado State Capitol to testify in favor of SCR-001, a measure that could open the door for more childhood abuse survivors to sue perpetrators and the organizations that employed them. 

The measure aims to change the civil statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse, allowing people to sue over allegations from the 1990s and earlier. If it passes the legislature, the proposal would then go before voters this November as an amendment to the state constitution.

Witt was soon to join the intense, emotional debate over the measure, which has proved much more difficult to pass than supporters first imagined. 

But first, there was this elevator. As Witt tried to convince it to move, the doors slid open again, revealing a man — a big man, with a big cowboy mustache — waiting to go up.

Courtesy of Angie Witt
Angie Witt has spent months trying to convince Colorado lawmakers to open the door for lawsuits over acts of childhood sexual abuse dating to the 1990s and earlier. She hopes to sue a church over the abuse she described suffering over 15 years.

“I looked at him. I said, ‘This elevator is broken. It doesn't work. We need to figure out how to make it work.’ I'm very hypervigilant, and I don’t know who this man is,” Witt recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, you have to use your key.’”

That man was Sen. Perry Will, a gregarious and well-liked state lawmaker from Garfield County in western Colorado. Neither of them knew that it was the beginning of a friendship — or that he could be a key decider in her quest for justice.

Why — and how — Republicans are blocking the measure

Will is a Republican. And in recent months, his party’s senators have joined together to block SCR-001, a move that appears likely to succeed. 

Unlike in 2021, Republicans this year have the power to stop the measure in the legislature. Because the proposal aims to amend the constitution, it can only pass with supermajority support from lawmakers. On their own, Democrats are just one vote short of that requirement in the Senate.

So far, the backers of SCR-001 haven’t convinced a single Republican to support the measure. Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Democratic sponsor, said she was surprised by the resistance.

“Child sexual abuse has never been a partisan issue before,” she said in an interview.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic State Sen. Jessie Danielson, Jan. 31, 2024.

In fact, just a few years ago, large numbers of Republican lawmakers agreed with the central goal of the constitutional amendment. The “Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act” of 2021 would have temporarily allowed lawsuits over sexual misconduct dating back to 1960. It set a maximum award of $1 million.

That bill passed the legislature with broad support; only a handful of Republicans voted “no.”

The earlier law, however, was struck down in 2023 by the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled that state lawmakers couldn’t create “retrospective legislation” that governed past actions.

Instead, the power rests with voters, who have the sole power to rewrite the state constitution. To change the policy, supporters would need to find a way to get an amendment on the ballot.

One option is to gather about 124,000 signatures from across the state, a process that can cost millions. 

Alternatively, there’s a more direct route: The legislature itself could decide to put the question to voters, saving the reformers time and money. That’s what this year’s legislative proposal would do.

“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, who is cosponsoring the resolution, at a press conference in January.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Sen. Rhonda Fields speaks during a press conference at the Colorado State Capitol in support of the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Amendment, Jan. 31, 2024. She is surrounded by legislative supporters and survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Kathryn Robb of Child USAdvocacy stands behind her, center. House Majority Leader Monica Duran is at right, in red.

If the new constitutional amendment were to ultimately succeed at the ballot box, it would allow the legislature to pass bills pertaining to liability for past sexual abuse — clearing the way for them to re-pass the previous law. (The reformers are focused on past instances of abuse. Abuse survivors today are offered a much longer window to sue, due to changes made in 2021. Similarly, there is no limit on when criminal cases can be filed for abuse of children 14 and under.)

In 2021, only four Republican Senators had opposed the sex abuse accountability law. If the same pattern held, this year’s resolution would easily clear the supermajority requirement.

But it soon turned out to be a much different picture. The proposal has languished for months, making little progress through the Senate. 

As a result, the debate still hasn’t reached the Senate floor. Instead, it’s played out in quiet but intense conversations. Danielson has canvassed the building with a cadre of abuse survivors, who tell their stories to anyone who will listen. They need to convince at least one Republican Senator to join their cause — and the clock is ticking.

Republican leaders worry about the fate of organizations with a history of abuse

Senate Majority Paul Lundeen, a Republican, voted in favor of the 2021 accountability bill. This year, though, he’s urging his colleagues to oppose SCR-001.

“Quite frankly, I understand the issue more clearly today than I did then,” he said in an interview.

Lundeen said that he had grown concerned about the concept of opening organizations to civil liability for individuals’ past crimes.

“This is a criminal matter. This is a crime, for heaven’s sake,” he said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican state Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen speaks with Colorado Matters Host Chandra Whitfield Thomas at the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. Lundeen represents District 9 in El Paso County.

Proponents counter that criminal law wouldn’t address the organizational negligence that allows abuse to happen.

Lundeen also cited concerns from schools, which he said could be forced into expensive settlements. And he pointed out that the resolution is different from the 2021 law.

While the earlier law set specific requirements and limits, SCR-001 would only ask voters to permit future “lookback” legislation. It is opening the door for a future law that may look substantially different from what Republicans and Democrats approved in 2021, and which could be approved without Republican support.

Republican Sen. Mark Baisley was initially interested in working with Danielson on this year’s measure but said there had been a misunderstanding.

“I thought it was a criminal statute of limitations issue,” he said. “Turns out, no, it’s a civil one.”

The American Property and Casualty Insurance Association has warned allowing these lawsuits would put “further pressure” on the insurance market since many defendants would rely on liability insurance to pay out settlements or judgments.

The Colorado Catholic Conference is opposed to the measure, with attorney Doug Tumminello arguing on their behalf at a recent hearing. Tumminello said he had defended organizations against claims dating to the 1940s.

“Witnesses are long dead, documents and other evidence is long gone. And the institutions are forced to defend themselves against allegations or claims when none of the decision makers or the actors from the time the allegations are still present, or available, or perhaps even alive,” he said. “Statutes of limitations matter. And they matter for this very reason.”

Danielson and the reformers argue that those concerns are overblown. They point out that as of last year, 27 states had opened windows for lawsuits over past abuse, according to ChildUSA.

“Let the people, and a jury of our peers, make this determination. Why are we having politicians … making these decisions?” said Basyle Tchividjian, an attorney for Angie Witt, who argued that deep-pocketed organizations are using lawmakers to try to shield themselves from liability.

When New York state allowed “lookback” lawsuits, more than 10,000 cases were filed in state courts, in some cases over allegations dating back to the 1950s, according to The National Law Review.

Supporters of the Colorado proposal include the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, the League of Women Voters of Colorado, and various others.

The campaign to flip (at least) one vote 

It’s not easy to convince a single lawmaker to stand up against their caucus, but supporters of the amendment have been trying to do just that.

On Tuesday, supporters will hold a press conference with Rachael Denhollander, a survivor who helped to bring down the serial sex-abuser sports doctor Larry Nassar. They've also won support from groups like the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute. “Sexual violence and sexual trauma have plagued indigenous youth for generations,” wrote Southern Ute Tribal Council Chairman Melvin Baker.

And in recent weeks, lawmakers, survivors, and advocates have canvassed the statehouse, trying to find a Republican who will join their cause. That’s happened through emails, phone calls, and chance meetings in the halls.

“They've been trying to turn my vote and catch anyone else, any other Republican, in a weak moment, because they need one Republican to vote with them, and they don't have it,” Baisley said.

The reformers’ attention has also been on Sen. Perry Will — the gentleman who helped Angie Witt with the elevator. After she left Colorado, she realized whom she had met, and wrote him an email. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News/File
State Sen. Perry Will.

“I said, ‘We met in the elevator and I was so scared, and you were so kind,’” she recalled. “And so I shared with him a little bit of my story.”

That story, she explained, included being molested by an authority figure at a church for 15 years. The memories had loomed over her life for decades until they were triggered, like an avalanche, in her 40s, after she had left Colorado for good and was raising her own children.

“This is somebody that had been profoundly traumatized as a child, and had spent a good part of their life trying to suppress that trauma,” said her attorney Tchividjian. Witt finished the thought: “To be able to function.”

The revelation strained her personal life as she searched for truth, requiring intensive and expensive therapy, she explained.

“That was an extremely difficult period in our marriage and in our life as a family,” Witt said.

But by the time she was willing to come forward, it was too late to pursue a civil case under Colorado’s current law. And local law enforcement seemingly abandoned the prospect of a criminal investigation sometime after interviewing her, for reasons that were never made clear to Witt.

Reading her story, Sen. Will responded to Witt’s email in February, saying he remembered the meeting in the elevator and that he wished they could have had a longer conversation. 

Soon after, Witt flew to Colorado once again to advocate for the measure. This time, she talked with Will over breakfast, then during a drive to the Capitol, and in his office. She found him patient and empathetic, and their connection has continued since.

“We have a relationship now, and I feel like I can talk to him candidly,” she said.

“I want to hear her story and where she's coming from,” Sen. Will said in an interview.

Witt has tried to leave the senator room to make his decision she said, but stresses the issue is critically important. She believes voting down the measure would silence the voice of Coloradans by potentially denying them the chance to decide the issue.

“That’s all this measure is doing, is giving Coloradans a chance to vote yes or no,” she said.

Witt and other survivors also spoke before a legislative committee in an hours-long hearing. Witnesses spoke of being abused by middle-school wrestling coaches, Boy Scouts leaders, history teachers, priests, doctors, and others. In her own comments, Witt commanded the attention of the room and called out inattentive lawmakers, making herself impossible to ignore.

“If there's whispering going on, it's very distracting and I won't speak. I flew all the way here … to testify,” she told committee members.

But it’s unclear if the campaign will win any Republican senator over, including Will.

In an interview, he said that he remains undecided, and even that he had “waffled” on the issue early on. But he remains skeptical, and, in fact, was one of the few lawmakers who opposed the 2021 attempt to extend the civil statute of limitations.

“Those people suffered a lot, and I get that. I’m a very compassionate person, and I understand that,” he said. “But you’ve got to look beyond that, too. I get lots of emails concerning this, on both sides of the issue. We got tough decisions on that. And sometimes what we do here has huge impacts down the road.”

He and other lawmakers have asked whether lawsuits over past abuse would be a fair fight. Such cases require a “preponderance” of evidence, compared to the “shadow of a doubt” standard held in criminal cases.

But experts in abuse recovery say it often takes decades for survivors to process what happened and come forward. Tchividjian said the decades-old claims are not easy wins: The legal burden remains on the plaintiffs to prove that the organization knew or should have known that the perpetrator was a danger to children.

“Those are huge hurdles that every plaintiff has to cross,” Tchividjian said. For a claim from years past, “that hurdle has just doubled in size.”

A lawsuit is a way to hold an organization responsible for enabling suffering, Witt’s attorney said. It would allow her to bring witnesses who can speak to the behavior of the accused. She also could pursue records that might support her case — including the results of an internal investigation that played out after she brought her allegations to the church in recent years.

“I don't want to give up hope because my voice matters. My story matters. The voices of victims of childhood sexual abuse, they matter,” she said.

The resolution could go to a make-or-break vote on the Senate floor as soon as this week. If it fails, survivors and their advocates will have to decide whether to mount a statewide campaign and try to get the question on the ballot themselves.

Editor's note: This article was updated April 16, 2024 to correct Larry Nasar's profession.