Updated 1/19/22 at 10:30 am – This version of the article has been updated to reflect breaking news of a $490M settlement for the victims of Robert Anderson.
Several weeks ago, the more than 300 victims of Michigan State University’s Larry Nassar were in the news once again after receiving $380 million in compensation for the abuse they endured as children. More recently, Michiganders learned that former Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield was accused of sexually abusing his sister-in-law from the time she was 15-year-old. The survivors of University of Michigan’s Robert Anderson, who abused more than 1000 men over 37 years, just won a $490M settlement today.
Why has Michigan been the setting for so many headline-grabbing instances of abuse? The answer can be found in our state’s laws, which ChildUSA ranks near the bottom of all states for their unfriendliness to victims. Sexual abuse has manifested like a cancer cluster in our state. But laws that empower victims are the scalpel, and the victims themselves who are supported in breaking their silence can become the immune cells, beating back the disease.
In my 10 years pursuing cases against men who used their positions of authority to commit sexual abuse – whether in politics, the church, medicine, sports, or schools – my experience has been that once one victim of a powerful abuser summons the courage to come forward, others follow. That is why Michigan must make the process of coming forward as simple and supportive as it possibly can be. We must throw open our courtroom doors and throw out laws that protect abusers and the institutions that shield them.
Tragically, when survivors come forward they need to steel themselves for the scrutiny, the victim-blaming, and the accusations of dishonesty that inevitably follow their disclosure. But what is worse is that they too often find the courtroom doors closed by statutes of limitations. Until 2018, Michigan had the shortest statute of limitations in the United States for civil child sexual abuse claims. But by opening a window only for Larry Nassar’s victims to make claims and changing the age to report childhood sexual abuse from 19 to 28, Michigan only moved from the worst tier to the second-worst. We must do better.
State Senator Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte) has proposed legislation to create a similar window for Robert Anderson’s victims, which is laudable and critically needed. But rather than moving one abuser at a time, Michigan must open windows to investigate every allegation of sexual abuse – with due process for the accused and a fair hearing for the accuser – no matter how long ago the allegations took place.
When statutes of limitations are removed, child predators and the institutions they operate within are exposed, protecting others from the same suffering. The financial burdens for those who seek healing are shifted from victims to perpetrators. And as public awareness is increased, it becomes harder for predators to hide. Like vampires, they cannot bear the sunlight.
In addition to a narrow statute of limitations, Michigan’s Tort Liability Act prevents survivors of sexual abuse from suing the State of Michigan or any arms of the state, including state colleges and universities like the ones where Nassar and Anderson operated with impunity for years. Instead, the state throws up procedural hurdles that bar victims from making claims.
Michigan law doesn’t give the state immunity from a failure to maintain highways or state buildings, negligent operation of state vehicles, or negligent operation of a state hospital. That is because we recognize that these things can cause serious harm. It’s time for Michigan to recognize that sexual abuse is a serious harm as well.
The average victim of childhood sexual abuse does not come forward to report that abuse until about the age of 50, if ever. If Rebekah Chatfield, now 26, had done the same, the allegations against the former House Speaker would not have come to light until somewhere around the year 2050. It’s clearly the sort of outcome any child molester would far prefer, which is precisely why it needs to change.
Much has been said about our politically divided nation, but the basic instinct that humans and animals alike share to protect the young from harm is not. It should never be a partisan issue. It is a universal desire and the mark of a civilized society. There is more than enough common ground on this issue – both within the state and across the country. More than 30 other U.S. states have passed measures to reform their statute of limitations laws, and Michigan should join them.
Sexual abuse survivors know that time does not heal all wounds. Yet our laws must give them the time they need to come to terms with their abuse, and to make the difficult disclosures that will help bring their attackers to justice.