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Nassar victims help unveil sweeping child abuse legislation

Posted at 9:22 AM, Feb 27, 2018

Victims of imprisoned former sports doctor Larry Nassar helped unveil what they described Monday as a sweeping rewrite of Michigan laws related to childhood sexual abuse, saying the changes would ease the ability to stop abuse and bring justice to survivors.

Included in the bipartisan 10-bill package is a proposal to drastically lengthen the time limit for victims of sexual assault to sue. Survivors who were minors at the time of abuse and for whom the two- or three-year statute of limitations has expired generally must file a civil lawsuit by their 19th birthday. Under the legislation, minor victims could sue up until their 48th birthday while those assaulted in adulthood would have 30 years to file a claim.

The measures were unveiled the same day the U.S. Education Department announced a new investigation of Michigan State University, where Nassar was employed for decades and which has been accused of mishandling complaints that enabled him to continue molesting patients under the guise of treatment. He also worked at USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians and is the sport's governing body.

"We find ourselves at the top of a list we don't want to be on, as we rank among the states leading the nation in providing protective environments for predators to thrive and the worst environment for survivors to find justice," said Sterling Riethman, 25, a former collegiate diver and Nassar patient who was among more than 250 women and girls who spoke at his recent sentencing hearings.

She was joined Monday at the state Capitol by legislators along with "sister survivors," including 2012 Olympic gymnast and gold medalist Jordyn Wieber; Rachael Denhollander, who alerted The Indianapolis Star to Nassar in 2016; Larissa Boyce, who reported Nassar to Michigan State's gymnastics coach in 1997; and Amanda Thomashow, whose 2014 complaint against Nassar resulted in the school clearing him.

"Do everything you can to support and protect these victims and others just like them. Make the necessary decision to ensure that this never happens again," said Thomashow, 28, who added that Nassar's survivors — who have sued the university, USA Gymnastics and others — "all deserve the same justice without a timeline for our grief or a deadline for our recovery."

Other bills would:

— add college employees and youth sports coaches, trainers and volunteers to the state's list of people who must report suspected abuse or neglect to child protective services; and stiffen criminal penalties for those mandatory reporters who fail to act.

— eliminate or lengthen the statute of limitations for prosecutors to file charges in cases of second- and third-degree sexual misconduct.

— remove the governmental immunity defense for people and institutions that allow sexual assaults to occur.

— impose no time limit on victims who sue the state for sexual misconduct that occurred when they were under 18, create harsher penalties for child porn possession and let prosecutors introduce evidence of prior sexual assaults in cases where the victim is an adult.

Michigan State and Twistars, an elite Lansing-area youth gymnastics club where Nassar treated athletes, have argued in court filings that most of Nassar's accusers waited too long to sue. The university also has asserted immunity from claims made under state law, though interim President John Engler said recently he hopes mediation will result in "a just resolution" for the survivors.

The legislation is expected to win quick approval Tuesday from a Senate committee. The full Senate could vote as early as next week before the bills go to the House. Denhollandar called on lawmakers to pass the measures before their summer break.

A lawmaker who helped spearhead the bills, Republican Sen. Margaret O'Brien of Portage, said she is "very confident" they will be enacted, crediting Riethman and Denhollander particularly for pushing the policy changes.

Also Monday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced a new Title IX probe of Michigan State, saying investigators will look at "systemic issues" with how the school handled reports of sexual violence against Nassar.

"Every student across every campus should know that I am committed to ensuring all students have access to a learning environment free from sexual misconduct and discrimination and that all institutions that fall short will be held accountable for violations of federal law," DeVos said in a statement.

The Education Department already had open inquiries into the school's compliance with Title IX, the law that requires schools to prevent and respond to reports of sexual violence, and its compliance with requirements about providing campus crime and security information.

The Michigan attorney general's office, Congress and the NCAA also are investigating.

"MSU will cooperate fully with this and all investigations," said university spokeswoman Heather Swain.