Capital News Service
Friday, March 5, 2004
LANSING -- A legislative proposal would eliminate the current three-year
deadline on bringing civil lawsuits against alleged child sex offenders.
Supporters say the change could open up cases involving sexual misconduct by priests and other authority figures, but opponents worry that the absence of a time limit could also lead to meritless claims.
“It doesn’t make sense to set limits for (filing a lawsuit for) this type of crime because it takes time for victims to come to terms with what happened to them,” said Sen. Gilda Jacobs, D-Huntington Woods, who sponsored the bill. “Lots of times, people have had terrible trauma in their lives and aren’t able to remember it until they’ve gone through therapy and they’re in their 30s and 40s.”
The current deadline for seeking damages from someone who had sex with a person younger than 18 is three years from the victim’s 18th birthday, or three years after the incident, whichever is later.
But Bonnie Bucqueroux, executive director of Crime Victims for a Just Society, said that she is concerned that people who have seen a bad counselor will sue based on so-called “false memories.”
False memories occur when people believe they remember a traumatic experience that didn’t happen. Psychologists say it can be difficult to distinguish memories based on true events from those derived from other sources.
“The danger in removing the statute of limitations is that a 50-year-old with a troubled life can go to a (bad) counselor, get a false memory and then sue the (alleged offender’s) family,” said Bucqueroux. She said that there could be an “economic motive” on part of therapists to implant such a memory in patients without money for treatment.
“Supposed repressed memories have been known to split families and the validity of those memories is suspect. More and more research confirms that people can be very suggestible about memory, and they may not be right. This is a dangerous area for the state to make changes in,” she said.
But Jacobs said she isn’t worried because Michigan law already imposes sanctions for frivolous suits.
On the other hand, Macomb County prosecutor Carl Marlinga said he is familiar with one situation in which an alleged victim of abuse by a priest in the late 1970s couldn’t sue because of the statute of limitations. He called the bill an excellent idea to deter sexual crimes.
“The immediate cases coming to mind are sexual conduct involving priests and young boys and girls,” he said. “It’s only right that there’s an unlimited amount of time because of the psychological damage done. The contact with the offender can keep individuals from admitting (the abuse) for years because there are emotional, familial and sometimes economic ties binding the victim to the batterer.
“Sometimes it’s tough to act timely, so by extending the limit, we’ll add more justice.”
Marlinga said the concern about false memories isn’t serious enough to prevent legislation.
“Just because false memories can exist in some cases doesn’t mean we should prevent all cases from being heard in court,” he said, adding that the burden is on the person who sues to prove that the event happened. “Trying to prove that doesn’t mean they’re successful.”
The president of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, Marshall Tauber of Bloomfield Hills, disagreed, calling the bill “frightening.”
“Criminal events are time- and place-specific, and the limit is set to weed out what might be fabrications,” he said.
Having no deadline would place a much larger burden on the defendant, who will be presumed to be guilty by allegation, he said.
“This is no longer forcing the prosecuting attorney to say when something happened, just that something happened. This is a constitutionally dangerous road where allegations become the agenda of the day,” Tauber said.
No hearing has yet been scheduled for the bill, which is in the Senate Judiciary committee.
The co-sponsors are Sens. Mike Goschka, R-Brant; Raymond Basham, D-Taylor; Buzz Thomas, D-Detroit; Michael Switalski, D-Roseville; Irma Clark-Coleman, D-Detroit; Dennis Olshove, D-Warren, Deborah Cherry, D-Burton, and Michael Prusi, D-Ishpeming.
Copyright 2004, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism