Our Editorial: In fight for victims, don’t stretch law

March 1, 2018

The rush to “do something” in the wake of the Dr. Larry Nassar abuse scandal at Michigan State University is in full swing. Multiple investigations are underway, and now the Legislature has stepped in with its proposed fixes. And while some of the measures are important, lawmakers should ensure they don’t unintentionally go too far in stretching the law to prevent abuse and punish those responsible.

Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, announced the legislation Monday at a press conference that included several of the gymnasts who testified against Nassar. More than 200 women shared their stories in court ahead of Nassar’s sentencing.

Their testimonies are powerful. And the the fact Nassar was allowed to continue practicing for decades demands a response.

O’Brien’s bipartisan legislation is sweeping, with a focus on fighting sexual assault and increasing legal protections for survivors.

“It is important that our laws protect those who are most vulnerable, including our children,” said O’Brien in a statement. “This legislation would put fear into the heart of any possible perpetrator. Justice must be served.”

The Legislature seems keen to move quickly. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation Tuesday, including an amendment to add the possibility of jail time for adults who fail to report child abuse allegations. The legislation would expand mandatory reporter laws for child sex abuse to university and youth coaches and trainers, just as clergy, teaching and medical professionals are required to report allegations of abuse to police.

There was a clear lack of accountability at MSU. The Detroit News has reported that at least 14 university representatives were aware of Nassar’s actions — but did nothing about it.

The bills also would toughen child pornography penalties and eliminate governmental immunity for state institutions and their employees in sexual assault cases, among other measures.

Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar in 2016, spoke at O’Brien’s press conference, and her influence can be felt in the bills.

“Speak for those who have no voice,” Denhollander told lawmakers. “Prioritize their safety because they depend on you.”

Yet some elements in this legislation should be more carefully vetted. Several proposals seek to extend the statute of limitations by up to 30 years beyond the accuser’s 18th birthday, giving victims decades to bring criminal charges or civil lawsuits against the accused, as well as the institution that employed the individual.

According to O’Brien, her “bills would update current law to allow prosecutors to bring charges of second-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC) against a minor at any time after the act occurs, while also allowing charges of third-degree CSC against a minor up to the survivor’s 48th birthday, or within 30 years of an accuser being identified by DNA evidence.”

Allowing for that much time to pass can make truth finding difficult for courts and justice more elusive. Victim statements in most cases would be the only evidence. Institutions would be forced to defend themselves against charges stemming from incidents 30 or 40 years in the past in which those involved may no longer be in their employ, or even dead.

And it would open the floodgates for lawsuits. This piece of the legislation needs far more consideration, and should not be moved forward without impact studies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has raised concerns about “unintended consequences” and said proposed changes to the statute of limitations could be unconstitutional if they apply retroactively. That’s a legitimate point. Any new laws should apply only to future incidents.

Lawmakers should tread carefully around the statute of limitations. Other portions of the legislation, however, are worthwhile and could help prevent another abuser like Nassar from harming children.