Two weeks ago, six survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar — a former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor who abused more than 250 people under the guise of medical treatment over the past few decades — spoke to legislators in Michigan and unveiled a package of ten bills specifically designed to overhaul Michigan’s weak and outdated laws on childhood sexual abuse.
“When I stood at the Olympic podium, I thought winning a gold medal for my country was the most important thing I could accomplish in my life,” said 2012 Olympic champion Jordyn Wieber, a Michigan native who was both abused by Nassar and coached by the embattled John Geddert. “I now realize that was just the beginning. Today we will change our laws and our culture so that every child will be valued, respected, and protected.”
The proposed bills, which would dramatically extend the statute of limitations for victims and expand the number of mandatory reporters in youth sports, are expected to be voted on by the Michigan Senate this week. They have received wide bipartisan support from lawmakers and have been touted by victim advocates as a blueprint for the rest of the country to follow. Sounds like a win all around, right?
Well, not everyone sees it that way.
On Monday, Michigan’s 15 public universities sent a letter asking lawmakers to delay voting on these bills, out of concern that the bills would have a “profound impact” and encourage survivors to file a “significant number” of lawsuits against institutions such as universities, churches, and grade schools. In other words — they’re worried that these laws will be too effective and encourage too many victims to come forward and seek justice, which would be quite costly for any institution that enabled abuse.
Currently in Michigan, victims of child sex abuse only have until their 19th birthday to report a crime. This package of bills would make it so that every adult victim of sex abuse has 30 years after the incident to report it to police, and victims of sexual abuse would have 30 years after they turn 18 — that is, until their 48th birthday — to do so. The law is retroactive to 1993, which is when the first reported assault by Nassar occurred.
“We ask that decisions on these bills be delayed to allow for more analysis and discussion to ascertain their full impact,” wrote Daniel Hurley, CEO of the group that advocates for the state’s universities, citing specific concerns about the increasing cost of insurance and the negative impact on the state government’s credit rating.
Michigan public universities aren’t the only ones worried about the impact of this legislation — the Catholic Church is, too. Michigan Catholic Conference spokesman David Maluchnik told the Associated Press that the proposed extension of the statute of limitations was “of concern.” The Catholic Conference has lobbied against similar changes to Michigan law in the past: In the mid-2000s, male victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests were told by Michigan courts that they waited too long to report the abuse.
Thankfully, some lawmakers in Michigan remain more concerned about protecting victims than protecting institutions.
“I think this is something that if we have to pay a price to protect our boys and girls, maybe it’s time we start paying that price because we seem to be willing to pay the price for other things that aren’t as important,” State Senator Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) told Michigan Radio on Monday.
“I don’t understand what a delay would do except delay justice, or maybe the hope is to stop it entirely,” she added.
Nassar’s abuse was brought to light in the fall of 2016 thanks to an investigation by the Indianapolis Star into the enabling of sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics. He was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison in Michigan courts earlier this month for criminal sexual abuse, on top of a 60-year federal term for child pornography. At his sentencing hearings in January and February, more than 150 women gave victim impact statements; because of his grooming, many of them didn’t realize they were abused by Nassar until the case began making news.
“The harsh reality is that in most cases, survivors of sexual assault are too deeply traumatized to be able to speak out and pursue justice until decades later,” Rachael Denhollander, the first Nassar victim to come forward publicly to the Indianapolis Star, told Michigan lawmakers earlier this month.
“Two hundred and fifty-six women chose to stand against the tide and speak out against sexual abuse. I hope with everything in me that politicians will have same courage, the same fortitude, the same commitment to do what is right.”