Michigan House passes 27 Nassar-related bills

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing -- The Michigan House approved on Thursday more than two dozen bills tailored to address the failings that allowed former sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar to sexually abuse hundreds of women and girls over two decades.

Emotions were high as lawmakers debated parts of the scaled-back legislation, but the House eventually passed all of the 27 bills by wide margins. Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, grew emotional as she defended the legislation before the full House.

"I believe that we are taking critical steps to address sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse," Chang said as she fought back tears. "And the legislation that we pass today will make a difference in the lives of countless Michiganders in the years to come."

The legislation, some of which originated in the Senate, has been the subject of hours of testimony in the House Law and Justice Committee over the past six weeks. The panel advanced the legislation Wednesday to the full House.

Bills that would have stripped governmental institutions of immunity in certain cases of sexual misconduct were passed by the Senate in March, but never made it out of House committee. A provision of the recent $500 million settlement between Michigan State University and Nassar victims required victims to pull their support for the governmental immunity bills with the belief the lawmakers would follow suit.

Rep. Klint Kesto, the Commerce Township Republican who chairs the Law and Justice Committee, and Chang said legislators were not a party to the settlement. Lawmakers said the withdrawal of governmental immunity in some sexual misconduct cases would have penalized taxpayers who would end up paying the bill in any civil lawsuit. They said the decision to drop the legislation was motivated by hours of testimony and data presented in committee hearings, not the MSU settlement.

A bill that would add physical therapists, physical therapy assistants and athletic trainers to the list of mandatory reporters of sexual assault or abuse passed unanimously, though some lawmakers expressed frustration that coaches weren’t included in the legislation.

The legislation initially included coaches and volunteers on the list of mandatory reporters to address a report that in 1997 a gymnast told Coach Kathie Klages of Nassar’s behavior, but Klages encouraged her not to act.

“Coaches absolutely should be mandatory reporters,” said Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor.

The addition of coaches would not necessarily require them to report someone like Nassar since physicians aren’t included in the law as one of the suspected abusers requiring reporting, Kesto said. Mandatory reporter laws currently include clergy, teachers, parents and guardians among the suspected abusers requiring reporting, as well as “any other person responsible for the child's health or welfare.”

Other bills approved Thursday address coaches who fail to report sexual abuse, Kesto said, including two that would penalize people in authority who prevent someone from reporting to police or university Title IX officials.

Lawmakers also criticized legislation extending the state’s statute of limitations in civil and criminal cases. In certain cases of sexual misconduct,  the bills would extend the criminal statute of limitations to 15 years, the civil statute of limitations to 10 years past the age of majority or three years after the abuse was discovered.

It also would create a 90-day retroactive window that would allow civil litigation in cases dating back to 1997 that include a physician already convicted of sexual misconduct under the guise of medical treatment.

Zemke criticized the limited retroactive window, which essentially applies only to Nassar victims. "This process I thought was supposed to be about all survivors," Zemke said.

Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said she doesn't understand why lawmakers continue to advance legislation that would make one group whole, but not others.

"I can’t in good faith support a carve-out in this bill," she said.

But the legislation goes a long way to address the sexual abuse failings apparent in the Nassar scandal, said Kesto and Chang.

“These bills go as far as we can with that goal from a lawmaking perspective, but we have to have responsibility as individuals in society,” Kesto said.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit (right), said the package of 27 bills approved Thursday (May 24, 2018) help address the sexual abuse failings that were exposed by the Larry Nassar scandal.

Kesto’s reassurances about the legislation followed Wednesday comments from Rep. Tim Greimel, who said the retroactive window amounted to a “pedophile priest loophole” and was done at the bidding of the Michigan Catholic Conference. Greimel is running for the open seat in the 11th Congressional District as is Kesto, the chairman for the House Law and Justice Committee.

In a Thursday statement, Catholic League President Bill Donahue said the Auburn Hills Democrat owed Catholics an apology.

“This is pure unadulterated bigotry,” Donahue said. “The Catholic Church does not own this problem.”

In response, Greimel said Donahue, Kesto and the Michigan Catholic Conference owed apologies to victims of sexual abuse by priests.

“The conference should be ashamed of itself for lobbying to protect sexual predators instead of the Catholic victims of these crimes,” Greimel said in a statement. “How can they look a victim or their family in the eye and justify their position?”

Greimel's comments were an attempt by someone who “wasn’t part of the process in a positive way” to remain relevant, Kesto said. House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, condemned the comments of Greimel, the former House minority leader.

“We have 109 members in this chamber, only one chose to politicize these survivors,” Leonard said. “It’s pathetic, and this institution would be a lot better off with Tim Griemel out.”

Greimel said Leonard's comments were an attempt to distract from the "watered down" legislation. 

"Michigan residents would be well-served if he stops caving to special interest pressure, like he did this week, especially when doing so denies survivors their day in court," he said in a statement. 

Additional bills approved Thursday would:

  • Increase requirements for consent and documentation of certain medical procedures.
  • Increase penalties and revoke physicians’ licenses for sexual misconduct under the guise of medical treatment.
  • Expand laws and penalties concerning child sexually abusive material.
  • Increase the number of people who can give victim impact statements at sentencing.
  • Increase student education on sexual assault and harassment.
  • Clarify the procedure for removing state university trustees by allowing the governor to remove a trustee any time of the year instead of just when the Legislature is not in session.
  • Create a statewide office to consult on Title IX policy and procedure.
  • Require state universities to develop campus sexual assault response improvement plans.
  • Mandate the Michigan Department of Education to maintain disciplinary records for teachers at public and nonpublic schools.

The legislation -- most of which are House bills -- now head to the Senate.