BILLINGS- Plaintiffs in a massive sex abuse case involving a longtime former Miles City athletic trainer believe a proposed bill to change Montana’s civil statute of limitations laws for sex abuse victims is being sabotaged by a Billings lawmaker.
Late Tuesday night, more than a dozen survivors met in Billings for a conference call with Republican Rep. Bill Mercer, Montana’s former U.S. attorney.
Mercer opposes House Bill 202, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Shane Morigeau of Missoula, which is designed to extend or end the current 3-year statute of limitations for civil lawsuits by sex-abuse victims.
“My perspective all along has been if someone has been sexually abused as a child, you should never be able to escape the justice system,” Morigeau said Wednesday.
In September, a civil lawsuit was filed by former male students who attended and participated in sports at Custer County High School, where 78-year-old Jim Jensen worked. The suit says Jensen manipulated hundreds of victims through a sophisticated system of sexual abuse involving sexual massages and rub downs veiled under a program Jensen claimed would enhance athletic ability.
Jensen is currently in jail in the Yellowstone County Detention Facility pending federal charges for coercion and enticement of minors through the internet. He has not been charged criminally in state court for the alleged sexual abuse due to the current state statute of limitations law.
While plaintiffs have been positive about Morigeau’s bill, Mercer believes the proposed legislation is bad public policy and hopes to move in another direction.
“And I’m trying to work with both people on judiciary and outside of judiciary to see if we can come up with a different approach,” said Mercer.
Mercer told MTN News that he comes to the Legislature with 25 years of law experience. For eight years, he served as U.S. attorney for the district of Montana. He says he’s prosecuted many child sex-abuse cases.
However, 2019 is the first year Mercer has been a lawmaker. His 46th district encompasses parts of Alkali Creek and above Zimmerman Park in West Billings.
“I’ve prosecuted child sexual abuse cases, and I’ve litigated a number of different civil cases,” he said. “No statute of limitations for civil cases seems to me to a very bad idea.”
Mercer tells MTN News that he believes when too much time passes between when the assault happened and when the victim reports it, there are issues.
“The farther away we get from when the conduct happened witness’s memories become blurry there are challenges in terms of fairness to both the plaintiff and the defendant,” said Mercer.
However, Jensen’s alleged abuse victims disagree.
They spoke to MTN News anonymously and off-camera about the abuse and their thoughts on Mercer’s stance on this proposed legislation, they fear his work against the bill will cause it to fail.
“That’s not rooted in any research out there,” said one survivor. “Victims of abuse often times don’t realize their abuse for decades. It would not be rooted in any clinical research and to assume that a child would be able to do that would support the perpetrators and the institutions.”
Another victim agreed, saying he remembers vividly his alleged abuse by Jensen. Often times, it was mandatory for competing athletes he said.
“I would get, as a part of wrestling post-match rub downs, it was mandatory,” another plaintiff said. “After every match, you had to do it and you had to be ready.
Another plaintiff said he asked Mercer on the phone Tuesday night why he refuses to help Montana change its statute of limitations laws.
“I told him there were nine other states that lifted statutes on child molesters and I asked him to help us be the tenth state,” a third plaintiff said.
While Mercer maintains that memory of abuse can fade over time, the victims disagree.
“You repress more than you forget as a victim. You put this in the deepest darkest parts of your brain,” said another man.
A fourth plaintiff in the case agreed.
“I am 37 years old and it has been almost 20 years since the last time Jim Jensen has sexually assaulted me. And I remember the smell of the room and his sweat dripping onto my body. Over 100 times this man sexually assaulted me. You can’t tell me that time has diminished my memory and or my ability to convey it a to a jury,” he said.
The bill is currently stuck in the House Judiciary committee and Morigeau said time is running out to move it. The measure has to be onto the house floor by March 4.
“It does hurt my heart a little bit every time we talk about bringing it down,” said Morigeau.
Morigeau said science-based research shows that the average age of reporting a childhood sexual abuse incident is 52 years of age. Each time amendments are proposed to the bill it becomes less effective, said Morigeau.
“Twenty-five years from occurrence starts to get away from what we know as science as to what or when an individual comes out and talks about these types of cases,” said Morigeau.
Reporting by Andrea Lutz for MTN News