February 14, 2020

Bill to lengthen statute of limitations on child sexual abuse passes House

Susan Dunlap

The state House debating a bill.

A bill that would extend the statute of limitations on taking civil action for child sexual abuse passed the House floor with broad bipartisan support Friday.

HB 302 passed 61 to 4. Currently, a victim of childhood sexual abuse must bring a claim to civil court before the victim’s 24th birthday or within three years of disclosing the abuse to a health provider. Bill co-sponsor Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, said that this bill would open that up.

The bill would not change the 24th birthday limitation but would expand the three-year period when a victim first becomes aware of the abuse and understands that they were harmed by it.

“It’s better than inadvertently saying something to a health provider while in the middle of something,” Matthews said during the House floor debate.

She expressed concern that the victim could make such a disclosure to a health provider who might not be equipped to advise or counsel the victim.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, is also sponsoring the bill.

A few Republicans took issue with the portion of the bill that eliminates the statute of limitations on civil action against an institution that knowingly allows a pattern of sexual abuse to occur to minors and does nothing about it.

Reports of long-standing sexual abuse in both the Catholic Church and USA Gymnastics have rocked both institutions. Both instances brought to light rampant disregard for the safety of those victimized while serial abusers were protected by the institutions. HB 302 specifies that the abuse had to have taken place in New Mexico and the injured person was a resident of the state when the incident occurred.

Rep. Zachary Cook, R-Riodoso, said he was troubled by a hypothetical situation where an organization with a great reputation of working with children hires “the wrong guy” and, without a pattern of abuse, can’t be sued.

But Matthews said a victim can pursue a claim against an organization in that particular type of case under existing case law.

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said she’d like to see all statute of limitations lifted off of child sexual abuse crimes.

Matthews said her collaborator advised that the Senate would never approve such a move.

Dow also said she would like to see the bill contain language that would enable a victim of child sexual abuse to sue the state in instances where New Mexico Child, Family Youth Department repeatedly returns a child to home where the department knew such abuse had occurred.

Matthews said that would require a different bill, but she’d be interested in co-sponsoring such a bill with Dow.

“We need to remember responsibility lies with the powerful, not the powerless,” Matthews said.