Senator: Enablers should be ‘in jail cell’ like Nassar

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A Michigan Senate committee on Tuesday unanimously approved sweeping legislation to combat sexual assault, amending a new plan to include potential jail time for adults who are required but fail to report child allegations to proper authorities.

The proposal, a response to the Larry Nassar scandal that has engulfed Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, would expand existing mandatory reporter laws for child sexual abuse to include university or youth coaches or trainers.

Those who fail to do so could be charged with a felony and sentenced to up to two years in prison under an amendment sponsored by Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. They’d face a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense and more for additional instances.

As The Detroit News reported in January, at least 14 MSU representatives were warned about Nassar’s behavior over more than two decades. The disgraced sports doctor sexually assaulted hundreds of girls and young women under the guise of medical treatments.

“I’m a Spartan, class of ’80 at MSU, and I can’t believe a highly paid coach or trainer or doctor or anybody wouldn’t report this,” Jones said in the hearing. “They don’t need training, they know it. And if they can’t do it, they need to sit in a jail cell just like Larry Nassar.”

The bipartisan bill package, spearheaded by Republican Sen. Margaret O’Brien of Portage, was unveiled Monday and formally introduced earlier Tuesday. It would also give victims more time to seek criminal charges or civil lawsuits against their assailants or institutions that enabled them by extending statutes of limitations in second- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct cases.

Other measures would toughen child pornography penalties, allow childhood victims who file suits in the Michigan Court of Claims to remain anonymous and eliminate governmental immunity for state institutions or their employees in sexual assault cases.

Rachel DenHollander, the first victim to publicly accuse Nassar in September 2016, said the proposals would make “vital” changes to Michigan law and urged legislators to act quickly.

“Get it on the governor’s desk,” said DenHollander, an attorney who walked lawmakers through the package and explained the rationale for each bill. “Speak for those who have no voice. Prioritize their safety because they depend on you.”

Fellow victims Sterling Riethman and Larissa Boyce, who said she told an MSU coach about Nassar abuse in 1997, also spoke in support of the legislation. Several other women wore “sister survivor” shirts in the hearing room.

Nassar is serving a 60-year federal prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to possessing 37,000 images of child pornography. He was also sentenced to 40-175 years on seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County and 40-125 years on three counts in Eaton County.

While all nine bills won unanimous support in committee – a 10th bill announced Monday will originate in the House -- the package is facing some opposition as it heads to the full Senate floor for consideration.

Kimberly Buddin, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, raised objections over possible “unintended consequences” and warned that changing the statute of limitations could be deemed unconstitutional if it is not limited to future incidents.

Larry Dubin, an attorney whose autistic son was placed on the sex offender registry for downloading child pornography, asked lawmakers to consider language acknowledging that in child pornography cases, people with developmental disabilities should be diverted from the criminal justice system and toward mental health support services.

The Michigan Catholic Conference did not object in committee, but Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the group had expressed reservations over expanding the statutes of limitations.

“I think they have some valid concerns,” said Meekhof, R-West Olive, who supports the overall bill package. “Not only priests, but also any other case that could be opened up if we change or somehow change the statute of limitations.”

David Maluchnik of the Michigan Catholic Conference said his group is backing most of the new legislation and noted it proactively helped add clergy to the list of mandated reporters in 2002. Allowing retroactive punishment for civil cases is a concern, he said, adding that “We’re having our counsel review it for us to better understand the full impact.”

A bill sponsored by Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, would give sexual assault victims up to 30 years to file civil lawsuits against individuals or institutions. A minor could file suit until he or she turned 48 years old, and the proposal would apply to any actions that have occurred the start of 1993.

A bill sponsored by O’Brien would eliminate the statute of limitations in criminal cases involving second-degree sexual assault against minors. For third-degree cases involving a child, prosecutors could file charges within 30 years of the offense or by the victim’s 48th birthday.

“The harsh reality is that in most cases, survivors of sexual assault are too deeply traumatized to speak out and pursue justice until decades later,” DenHollander said, “This means that by the time a survivor is able to speak and seek help, by the time justice can be done against their abuser, the avenue of justice both civilly and criminally have been completely cut off.”

Several other groups and individuals offered support for the legislation in committee, including Attorney General Bill Schuette, who submitted a written letter to lawmakers advocating for passage.

Meekhof did not indicate when the full Senate could take up the package but told reporters he thinks there “is some great stuff in those bills.”