Legislators to revive bid to ease sex abuse suits against UM

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Two state lawmakers plan next month to reintroduce legislation that would lift the statute of limitations for accusers of former University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson, removing barriers to lawsuits against the school over allegations that he sexually abused them.

Michigan Reps. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, and Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, announced during a Zoom conference Friday that they will propose the bipartisan legislation at the start of the new session of the Michigan Legislature next month.

The bills, introduced initially last September, also would curtail the school's use of governmental immunity in the cases.

Former University of Michigan football player Jon Vaughn speaks during a press conference Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, announcing legislation that would remove some barriers for victims of sexual abuse under the guise of medical treatment to sue governmental institutions. Vaughn and dozens of other UM athletes say they were abused by the late UM physician Dr. Robert Anderson.

Berman said the bills are about "seeking justice and doing the right thing" for sexual assault victims and preventing schools from using state government immunity as a shield against litigation.

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"Just amending our laws is a very important so this kind of abuse doesn't happen again," he said. "These bills are very important in moving forward ... to do everything we can to help empower survivors."

Whitsett said the bill is not only a legislative issue for her but personal as well. The Detroit Democrat said Friday she was sexually assaulted by a physician and counts herself as a suvivor.

"People need to know that it is safe to come to someone and there is a recourse," she said. "You have actions and someone needs to be held accountable and that you do not have some unrealistic timeline in which to report these matters in. We're trying to ensure that victims are no longer victimized."

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald declined to comment, saying: "Because this is a matter with pending litigation, we have nothing to share at this time."

At least 235 individuals have sued UM in U.S. District Court, alleging the university ignored complaints about Anderson dating to the late 1960s, allowing him to continue to have contact with patients for decades.

The state lawmakers were joined at the one-hour meeting, called "Empowering Survivors," by former UM football player and Anderson accuser Jon Vaughn, and author Amos Guiora, who has written a book, "Armies of Enablers," about survivors of sexual assaults at Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Catholic churches and USA Gymnastics.

Vaughn, who was at UM from 1988-90,  and Guiora are writing a book together titled "Piercing The Veil" about Vaughan and others' alleged ordeals at UM with Anderson, who died in 2008 after working at the university from the 1960s until 2003.

Vaughn, 50, said he is sharing his abuse story to give voice to others in the same situation and not let Anderson "steal the joy " from so many other men and women.

"I'm here. I won't be silenced," he said. "A lot us survivors feel like we're dehumanized. We are no longer victims. We are survivors."

Vaughn and Guiora hope to have their book published by football season next year.

Guiora applauded Berman and Whitsett's efforts, saying "the sooner the better" the bills are adopted into law. 

Enablers and bystanders — those who witness or are aware of a sexual assault and fail to act — are a huge hindrance to preventing and dealing with abuse on campuses and elsewhere, Guiora said.

"It's not the crime of what the perp does, it's the enabler," he said. "The survivors who I interviewed ... don't really feel anger at the perpetrator. The anger (and) rage is directed at the enabler and/or the bystander. I defined the bystander as the person who is in room or sees the person in peril, sees the assault. The enabler who knows or could have prevented (the assault)." 

bwilliams@detroitnews.com