Several Democratic candidates for governor said this week that they would support legislation that would make it easier for victims of child sexual abuse to seek recourse as adults.
Their statements come in response to a call from the Women's March of Wisconsin and the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests for candidates to support the Child Victims Act, a proposal that has failed to pass in the state Legislature at least four times.
Under current law, an adult who was a victim of sexual abuse as a child cannot file a civil lawsuit after he or she turns 35. The Child Victims Act would eliminate the statute of limitations on such cases.
The proposal would also open a three-year window during which victims barred under the existing limitations could file lawsuits.
"The effects of sexual violence have no time limit. Neither should the statutes on child sex crimes," Women's March Wisconsin co-chair Sarah Pearson and SNAP founding member Peter Isely said in a statement. "It often takes years for an individual suffering from the life-altering trauma of sexual violence to come forward to seek justice. The law needs to be there when they do."
Both Pearson and Isely have been critical of Milwaukee attorney and former Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Matt Flynn, who represented the Archdiocese of Milwaukee against victims of sexual abuse by priests during his work with the law firm Quarles & Brady.
Pearson and Isely say that Flynn was involved with the transfers of abusive priests and that he treated victims of sexual abuse by priests disrespectfully. Flynn has argued that his role was to throw abusive priests out of the church and ensure such abuse did not reoccur, and has disputed assertions that he was overly aggressive with victims.
The Wisconsin Women's March and the Madison and Wisconsin chapters of the National Organization for Women have called on Flynn to end his campaign, while Flynn's campaign has said he is the target of a "smear campaign."
In a statement on Tuesday, Flynn said he supports extending the statute of limitations for civil claims for sexual abuse of minors to mirror those of the corresponding criminal claims and strengthening penalties for those who don't comply with mandatory child abuse reporting requirements.
"My years working as an attorney left me with a profound understanding of the failings of our criminal and civil justice systems in these cases. Victims suffer at the hands of abusers. The criminal and civil justice systems should be improved to spare these victims further suffering in the pursuit of justice," Flynn said in a statement.
Flynn said he would also require that a court commissioner be present for depositions of child abuse victims, to "protect victims from abuse by bad lawyers" and to "shield good lawyers from untrue allegations of misconduct in the depositions."
Former state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, noted that she co-sponsored the Child Victims Act as a lawmaker, and said as governor she would "use the power of my office to support survivors and prevent sexual violence."
"All victims deserve their day in court, especially survivors of child sexual assault. The Child Victims Act is necessary to address the persistent, systemic abuse of children, including the hundreds who were victimized by priests of the Milwaukee Archdiocese in previous decades," Roys said in a statement. "I have never wavered on my support for survivors of sexual violence."
As an attorney and a state legislator, Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said he has "fought in the courtroom for individuals who have been sexually assaulted and have fought at the Capitol for legislation to protect survivors."
Wachs said the state is "long overdue" in passing the Child Victims Act.
"Survivors of sexual violence must have protections under the law and, right now, Wisconsin’s laws fall short. There is simply no justification for a statute of limitations on child sex abuse," Wachs said in a statement.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers also pledged to sign the proposal into law as governor.
"We cannot allow those who terrorize our kids to hide behind unjust laws," Evers said in a statement.
Mahlon Mitchell, head of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, also said he backs the proposal.
The Child Victims Act earned some degree of bipartisan support when it was previously introduced, but it faced opposition from church officials and insurers. Catholic church officials in particular argued its passage would put the Archdiocese of Milwaukee into bankruptcy; however, the Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011 even without the law's passage, after hundreds of claims of abuse were brought against it.