Lawmakers grill expert about data, pay during hearings on post-Nassar bills

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Lawmakers grilled an expert witness Tuesday about what type of compensation she was receiving for her testimony in support of bills that would extend the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases.

Marci Hamilton, CEO of Child USA, told legislators she was not being paid for her testimony and had not been affiliated with a group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests for decades, though the group’s website indicates she was a speaker at a SNAP conference as recently as 2016.

Hamilton maintained she was testifying on behalf of Child USA, a child protection think tank, and had testified in other states reviewing changes to the statutes of limitations.

“I have never been asked those questions at another hearing in my life,” Hamilton said after the meeting.

Experts and victims have been sharing their thoughts on legislation aiming to give access to the judicial system for child sex abuse victims and stop perpetrators like Larry Nassar from continuing their abuse. The Michigan State University sports doctor was essentially sentenced to life in prison for possession of child pornography and sexually abusing dozens of victims. 

But lawmakers have sharply questioned the motivations and the data of some of those who have testified in a House committee. 

“They want to know whether or not there is a bias or a financial interest from the people who are advocating for this,” said Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township.

The Senate-approved bills under consideration would allow for a longer time period in which victims could pursue criminal and civil action against their sexual abusers, extending the criminal state of limitations from 10 years to 30 years past the age of majority and the civil statute of limitations from three years or one year past the age of majority to 10 years for adults and 30 years past the age of majority for children. The proposal also would make the law retroactive to 1997.

Hamilton told lawmakers that, contrary to other testimony, there was no “flood” of lawsuits filed after similar legislation was implemented in other states. The 30-year window would be one of the shortest in the country, she said.

Lawmakers questioned whether Hamilton had been paid to testify, and whether she’d added claims settled outside of court when contradicting testimony indicating an increase in claims after statutes of limitations changes.  

They asked Hamilton how she calculated data that pinpointed 48 as the typical age at which childhood victims of sexual abuse came forward with their stories, an age that formed the basis for the 30-year time frame in the bills.

Hamilton said 48 is considered the typical age because it’s the median between 18, when a child victim becomes an adult, and 78, the average age of death.

“So 48 is actually an intellectually dishonest approach,” said Rep. Lana Theis, R-Brighton.

“I take great exception to that,” Hamilton fired back. “The studies actually show that the age is averaging in the 40s. There’s actually a recent study that came out that puts it at 52.”

Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, stressed the importance of the age in the legislation.

“We were presented this number as if it was the number and it forms the way the bill was written, with the 30 years being on top of the age of 18,” said Chang, the committee's vice chairwoman. “And if we’re talking about creating public policy based on this age of 48, I think that we need to really understand where that comes from.”

Kesto, chairman of the House Law and Justice Committee, said similar background questions were not asked of former Court of Claims Judge Michael Talbot or lawyer Richard McLellan because they weren’t stating opinions.

“They didn’t necessarily go into the merits of the legislation,” Kesto said.

A recent retiree of the Court of Claims, Talbot in April was appointed as a “special independent delegate” to oversee all matters involving sexual misconduct by clergy and diocesan representatives in the Diocese of Saginaw. He also was appointed to the state’s Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board in May. 

McLellan, longtime chairman of the Michigan Law Revision Commission, is a Michigan State University College of Law trustee, an adjunct professor in MSU’s college of communication arts and sciences and was transition director in 1990 for then-incoming-Gov. John Engler, who is now MSU's interim president.

Talbot told lawmakers last Wednesday that changes to the statutes of limitations would overwhelm an already burdened system. He said passing public policy that increases the court’s caseload without sufficient resources would be “a gross injustice to those who have already been victimized.”

“When you decide something in terms of policy, you also have to be able to deliver that policy or it is just an abstract,” Talbot said.

McLellan said many groups are afraid to testify about the legislation, which otherwise would have drawn testimony from “university presidents, hospital administrators, home care workers.” He said the bills would imply serious public policy changes “that I think you should not do.”

“I’ll tell you what will happen, in about two years there will be a whole package of bills to clean up this mess,” McLellan said.

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