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Capitol news conference on child protection legislation

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, introduced the first bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sex crimes on Jan. 17. Behind her, from right to left are, Kristen Newby, Dan Rice, Bryant Martin, and John Heenan. Newby is the daughter of ex-Miles City athletic trainer James Jensen, who is accused of sexually dozens of boys through a decades-long grooming system. Rice, Martin and Heenan represent plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit against Jensen and the Custer County High School District. 

Last fall, a civil lawsuit filed against a former Custer County High School athletic trainer and the school district sought a measure of justice for 19 men who alleged that they were molested by James "Doc" Jensen under the guise of athletic conditioning.

The lawsuit rocked Montana, and led to remarkably swift and wide-ranging government action in the months since the allegations were first reported in The Billings Gazette in September.

Jensen, 78, now is in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges. But the state justice system has no power to prosecute him for crimes against high school students committed in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. The Montana statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors was 10 years when Jensen molested his victims. 

Montana legislators quickly responded to close that legal loophole. Ultimately, House Bill 640 combined several other bills and passed the Legislature with unanimous support from both chambers. Gov. Steve Bullock signed it into law on May 7. 

HB640 eliminated the statute of limitations for sex crimes against victims under age 18 for crimes committed on our after May 7. Changes that toughen criminal statutes can't be applied retroactively in the United States. From now on, though, no child molester will escaped justice in Montana because the clock ran out on criminal prosecution.

HB640 revised, but didn't eliminate, the statute of limitations for civil injury claims arising from sexual abuse of people under age 18. 

In separate laws, the governor and legislature this year restored longer mandatory minimum sentences for child molesters and explicitly criminalized sexual relations between school and treatment center staff and their students.

By asserting their legal rights in court, the 19 Miles City victims helped many other Montanans. Additional victims of have come forward, so the number of plaintiffs increased to 32. Jensen may have molested over 100 students during his years at the Miles City high school.

Miles City attorneys Dan Rice and Bryant Martin, along with Billings attorney John Heenan represent Jensen's victims in the civil lawsuit. "The courthouse doors should never be closed to victims of child sexual abuse," Heenan told The Gazette in a recent interview.

 "I marvel at their courage," Heenan said of his clients. "These guys had buried it away. A lot of these guys hadn't spoken about it."

The Jensen case, not unlike other sex abuse cases involving large numbers of students, begs questions about why adults responsible for protecting the youth didn't. The new law puts stricter requirements on mandatory reporters, including school staff, to promptly report child abuse to the state Department of Public Health and Human Service, and requires DPHHS to relay sexual abuse reports within five days to the appropriate county attorney.

County attorneys have numerous new mandates under this 2019 law, including: maintain records of child sexual abuse reports for 25 years, notify the person filing the report that it has been received and to file a report every six months with the Montana attorney general. These requirements takes effect July 1. Failing to report child sexual abuse is now a felony offense for adults who are required by law to report.

Time will tell how well these new efforts protect Montana children. Yet the fact that lawmakers and Bullock acted reflects long overdue attention to an insidious type of abuse that can traumatize victims throughout their lives.

The men who spoke up to bring Jensen to justice deserve thanks. More Montanans now realize that such unspeakable crimes can happen here — unless adults act and the law effectively protects children.

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