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Miles City attorney Bryant Martin

BRYANT MARTIN

Sexual abuse of children was hidden in the dark for decades, but recent media coverage has shed a light on this epidemic in Montana. Now the light has rightly shifted to the Montana Legislature to fix it.

Montanans have said “enough” and have been vocal in demanding the Montana Legislature change the laws. But, in the shadows are insurance companies seeking to maintain the broken system.

So what is the Montana Legislature doing this session to fix child sexual abuse laws?

  • HB173 changes a law to prohibit teachers or other adults at school from having sexual intercourse or sexual contact with a student.
  • Under current law, an offender cannot be prosecuted 20 years after the sexual abuse. LC3264 provides that offenders can always be held criminally accountable.
  • LC3264 increases the amount of time, from age 21 to age 27, that a child sex abuse victim can civilly pursue a perpetrator and an institution harboring that perpetrator. It also carves out special circumstances if the perpetrator admits to abusing the victim.

These revisions are an improvement, but there remain holes that allow victims to fall through the cracks.

The first two criminal law revisions cannot constitutionally be made retroactive. Thus, future perpetrators can be prosecuted forever, but those that have already abused children still get a pass. In those situations, the only remedy is a civil suit.

The unfixed problem is that the proposed civil law — after insurance company meddling — is not strong. It only allows a victim to come forward until age 27. In other words, the new law does not address the child sexual abuse victims from the 1990s and 2000s. Their abuse has been swept under the rug. Again.

So what do we do with all of the victims from the 1990s and 2000s?

A civil action forces accountability. It sheds light on other crimes committed by the perpetrator — crimes that can be prosecuted. It could take the perpetrator off the streets, or in the very least, put the world on notice to keep kids away from the perpetrator. Indeed, that is what has happened since the civil case against James Jensen started.

A civil action also holds institutions accountable. It is no secret that child abusers seek access to children. Our institutions should properly screen and supervise employees, and only through accountability will our institutions become safe places for our children.

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A civil action does so many good things to protect children that it is hard to find an opponent to eliminating the civil statute of limitations. Indeed, when the civil law bill was first introduced at the legislature, there was a line of supporters, and not a single opponent.

So why did the legislature propose this “compromise”?

Although insurance companies don’t live, work or vote in Montana, their money talks and they have a strong voice in the legislature. Certain legislators, led by Rep. Bill Mercer, took up the cause to protect insurance companies over children. They argued that the proposed age limit of 27 encourages people to come forward and seek justice. In reality, the goal is to close the courthouse doors to victims that insurance companies don’t want to have to compensate.

There are many ways to combat and prevent child sexual abuse from occurring, but the best deterrent is to hold perpetrators and the institutions that protect, inhibit and shelter them accountable. For that to happen, the child victims must remain the focus of legislation.

Cracks in the law can still be filled in this legislative session. We speak for ourselves and the dozens of survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of James Jensen when we say: We will never stop this fight so long as even one victim has the courtroom doors slammed in his face!

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Attorneys John Heenan of Billings and Bryant Martin of Miles City represent child sex abuse victims across Montana, 32 Miles City survivors.

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