LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Victims of sexual abuse and lawmakers testified Thursday in support of legislation that would give accusers more time to sue for damages and would take away immunity for governmental bodies that knew or should have known about criminal sexual misconduct.
The legislation, which has support from both parties, could allow hundreds of men and women who have accused late University of Michigan sports doctor Robert Anderson of molestation to also sue.
Similar changes were made for people abused as children following the convictions of former sports doctor Larry Nassar. He is serving decades in prison after hundreds of girls and women said he sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment when he worked for Michigan State University and Indiana-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.
Changes made in 2018 allowed people who were sexually abused as children to pursue legal action until their 28th birthday or three years from when they realize they have been abused. The new legislation would expand the option to adults and let them file suit until whenever is later: 10 years from when abuse happens, their 28th birthday, or six years — instead of three — from when they realize they were abused.
Democratic bill sponsor Rep. Karen Whitsett said if she could put no statute of limitations on filing for damages, she would. She told the state House Oversight Committee about being sexually assaulted by a medical professional and said it took her a long time to come forward about what happened.
The government immunity legislation may face some opposition. Similar legislation stalled three years ago — after Michigan State agreed to a $500 million settlement for Nassar’s victims — amid pushback from universities, schools, municipalities, businesses and the Roman Catholic Church over the financial implications of facing an unknown number of suits for old allegations.
Trinea Gonczar said Nassar abused her from age 8 to 24, but she didn't realize what Nassar had done was sexual assault until she heard other people tell their stories. By then, she was 37.
“These institutions have shamed, blamed and only protected themselves, which in turn is the exact way to attract predatory behavior to not only flourish, but to be welcomed,” Gonczar said.
Gonczar and other victims said people, especially children, aren't told to doubt doctors. When a doctor says sexual assault is a medical procedure, children will believe them, they said.
Republican bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Berman is leading the effort to repeal governmental immunity for agencies and employees, including state-funded universities, that knew or should have known about criminal sexual conduct.
Cathy Kalahar, who played for the University of Michigan's first women's tennis team in the 1970s, said when she told a university counselor that Anderson had assaulted her, the counselor told her she was simply experiencing a “sexual fantasy.”
"I was raped by the University of Michigan, through their employee, Dr. Robert Anderson,” Kalahar said.
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.