Who Is Blocking Bills to Help Arizona Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse?

(UPDATE: A previous version of this story misstated Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s stance on these bills. He has questioned an aspect of one bill, not opposed them both outright. We apologize for the error.)

One key lawmaker and other powerful interests have worked hard this legislative session to ensure that in Arizona, survivors of childhood sexual abuse only have until the wise old age of 20 to sue their abusers or those who allowed the abuse to happen.

Twice so far this year, Arizona State Senator Eddie Farnsworth has blocked or vocally opposed bills to expand that statute of limitations beyond two years and to retroactively create a one- or two-year window for survivors for whom the statute of limitations has expired.

The insurance industry has lobbied hard against those bills. Republican Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery questioned an element of one of them, too.

Those bills, sponsored by Republican State Senator Paul Boyer, have barely seen the light of day in the legislature. The first, SB 1255, never received a hearing thanks to Farnsworth, who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The second, SB 1101, was a strike-all amendment that the House Appropriations Committee discussed in early April, when Republican members on the committee refused to allow a vote.

But the issue resurfaced last week on the Senate floor, when state senators engaged in a lively discussion on SB 1255 while voting on a different bill that would have helped registered sex offenders remove their names from the registry.

Boyer has repeatedly said he will not vote on a state budget until Arizona passes a law that will give survivors more time to file suit in civil court.

“I’m concentrating on 1255. Now, I will, in a heartbeat, take 1101,” he told Phoenix New Times in a phone interview. “There’s multiple paths to help child victims. Both of those would work in my mind.” He said that although Farnworth had the most vocal opposition, Senate President Karen Fann and House Speaker Rusty Bowers had the final power to allow a vote on these bills.

SB 1101 would give survivors until the age of 30 to file a lawsuit against an abuser or against a person or organization that failed to report the abuse, either intentionally or through neglect. It would also open up a one- or two-year window for survivors older than that to file suit. SB 1255 would give a survivor seven years after discovery — the point at they should have reasonably known they were harmed — to file suit.

Giving survivors more time is critical, Boyer said, indicating that they often need even more time than his bill would allow for. “We know from all the literature, they don’t come forward until their 40s,” he said.

Nevertheless, the insurance industry and a state legislator remain keen on a plan that would protect sex abusers from civil lawsuits. Why? The most reliable answer is money, but then again, you never know what an Arizona politician could be hiding.

Farnsworth, it’s worth noting, has a nephew in prison for kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old girl. That information has been public since Albert Farnsworth’s arrest in 2003, when he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison with no possibility of parole. He pleaded guilty to three counts of child molestation and attempted sexual conduct with a minor.

Eddie Farnsworth did not respond to New Times’ request for an interview.

But the senator was concerned enough about SB 1101 that he showed up at the House Appropriations Committee on April 4 to voice his opposition to the striker. It’s not usual for a senator to show up at an information-only House committee hearing to oppose a bill.

At the hearing, Farnsworth, who is from a prominent Mormon family, warned committee members that expanding the statute of limitations would expose people to false allegations, years after the fact. Toward the end, he told them, “I didn’t intend to come and testify.”

A day earlier, Montgomery, a staunch Catholic, had texted Boyer messages that the state senator viewed as an effort to weaken the legislation, prior to the House committee’s discussion of SB 1101, AZFamily reported. In one text message, Montgomery questioned the temporary window that would allow survivors for whom the statute of limitations had expired to sue, although he denied taking a position against the bill.

In a statement to New Times after the original version of this story was published, Montgomery said, “I have never lobbied for or against any bill seeking to extend Arizona’s statute of limitations for bringing forth a civil claim involving this type of offensive conduct.”

Montgomery added, “As a consequence, I have no objection to the current legislation. I urge the Legislature to take action this session.”

Mike Low, a lobbyist for the Medical Insurance Company of Arizona, which covers groups of doctors, also wrote to those members prior to the committee meeting. He wanted to express the insurer’s “grave reservations” to the bill, the intent of which “appears to be to create risk that insurers never expected or priced,” he wrote.

In an interview with New Times, Low said that the insurer wasn’t opposed to prospectively expanding the statute of limitations. Rather, it opposed the retroactive window and any reference to “negligence.”

You could have people in the Boy Scouts, Scout masters, etc., who are pulled into this thing, and the allegation being from years ago that they knew or should have known. And we just think that’s unfair,” Low said.

The Medical Insurance Company of Arizona could not predict the financial consequences of such a bill on its own coffers if it passed, Low said.

“How do you go about assessing something that doesn’t exist right now? You look to other states where it’s happened,” he added, and he pointed to California, where he claimed 1,000 lawsuits had been filed in one year after the state opened a window for survivors to sue retroactively.

“That created a number of bankruptcies,” he said. (It’s not clear how many lawsuits have been filed solely in California as a result of such change, but it is true that Catholic dioceses in that state, as well as in Delaware and Minnesota, have filed for Chapter 11 after their states enacted laws allowing old claims to go forward in civil court.)

The American Tort Reform Association voiced similar concerns about money. In a letter to Arizona State Representative John Allen on April 3, president Sherman Joyce wrote, “the few states that have revived time-barred claims against nonprofit organizations and private businesses have experienced a surge of lawsuits and bankruptcies.”

The Catholic Church, which has covered up sexual abuses for decades, is not the only institution with reason to fear lawsuits.

In May, an investigation into the Mormon Church by VICE News found that a hotline intended for victims of sexual abuse actually led to the church’s lawyers. One of the abusers named in that story, who is now serving 35 to 75 years in a West Virginia prison, once worked as a missionary in Arizona.