Sexual assault survivors urge lawmakers to revise statute of limitations, govt. immunity laws 

By: - October 6, 2021 12:23 pm

University Health Services, University of Michigan | Allison Donahue

Survivors of sexual abuse from two former university doctors want the Legislature to reform laws regarding sexual assault. 

Dr. Robert Anderson was the former head of the University Health Service and a physician for the University of Michigan Athletic Department for 35 years. He died in 2008. Hundreds of former patients have since come forward to allege he sexually assaulted them. Many have sued U of M, asserting that the university knew of Anderson’s actions and aided in covering them up. 

That comes after Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor, pleaded guilty in 2017 to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct and admitted to using his trusted medical position to assault young women under the guise of medical treatment. The following year, he was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison.

Gymnasts urge U.S. Senate to investigate Larry Nassar sexual abuse after botched FBI inquiry

Bipartisan bills introduced in the House could help survivors carry out legal action against universities. 

The bills, which were also introduced last term, would change state laws to ensure survivors will have more time to file a lawsuit against the alleged abuser and hold government agencies accountable if they knew of the actions and failed to stop them. 

Several survivors testified in support at a state House Oversight Committee hearing on Thursday, including former U of M football player Jon Vaughn. Vaughn said that he and other young people were “abused, assaulted and raped” while they were supposed to receive a medical examination from Anderson. 

“We trusted our doctors, and especially trusted U of M doctors, who wouldn’t?” Vaughn said. “I feel a deep shame because there were Michigan personnel who knew about this abuse. What seem like routine checkups for most adults have become traumatizing for me.” 

Vaughn went on to say that he has since avoided seeking medical care because it makes him “very uncomfortable” and said that “this will go down as the largest sexual abuse and rape coverup in the history of sports.”

House Bill 4306, introduced by state Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit), amends the statute of limitations to allow survivors more time to report misconduct. The bill would allow survivors up to one year for survivors to file a lawsuit against a figure that had authority over them and conducted an alleged medical treatment or examination on them.

State Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) | Ken Coleman photo

The law was previously updated in 2018 to allow for 90 days for Nassar survivors. 

Trinea Gonczar, a Nassar survivor, former gymnast and now a director at Avalon Healing Center, also testified in support of the bills. Gonczar said she was abused by Nassar from between the ages of 8 and 24 and did not come to terms with her abuse until 13 years after the final incident happened. 

“I had to come to terms with the fact that my entire childhood was a lie,” Gonczar said. “Assault takes time to process. Just because someone was raped early as a child, they should not be penalized. They should still be protected and offered justice.”

House Bill 4307, introduced by state Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.), would restrict the scope of governmental immunity. The bill says government agencies will not be protected if someone within the organization knew or should have known about sexual misconduct, or if the organization failed to take action to stop or prevent the acts of misconduct. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s investigation into MSU and Nassar closed in March because university officials withheld thousands of documents.

“The university’s refusal to voluntarily provide them closes the last door available to finish our investigation,” Nessel said at the time. “We’re incredibly disappointed that our work will end this way, especially for the survivors. We can only emphasize again that justice doesn’t begin and end at the courthouse doors. Principles of truth, fairness, and equity should be lights that guide all of our public institutions, especially our schools; and, when our universities refuse to lead, they miss the most important way they can teach.”

Ryan Berman

Berman, who is running as a Republican for attorney general in 2022, helped lead a bipartisan letter calling on MSU trustees to release the documents. Last week, he thanked survivors for “bravely” sharing “their harrowing stories” in the committee.

“Our bipartisan plan will allow survivors of abuse to seek justice for their suffering,” Berman said in a statement. “We cannot reverse the past, but we can help survivors obtain their day in court to seek justice for what they endured.”

State Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.), minority vice chair of the House Oversight Committee, told the Advance the bills give “survivors of doctors Anderson and Nassar and any other doctor, access to our justice system.” 

“If these bills are passed, what we’re doing is we’re giving hundreds and hundreds of people an opportunity to have legal closure for the crimes that occurred to them,” Brixie said. “People will be able to come forward that are not involved in the Dr. Anderson case, but [who] had similar crimes committed against them. Allowing people access to the justice system helps them complete their healing from these traumatic events that happened, and serve justice to that and that’s ultimately what many of our criminal laws are designed for. Our civil laws are designed to allow people to seek justice when they’ve been wronged.”

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Julia Forrest
Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a contributor to the Michigan Advance. She has been covering Michigan and national politics for two years at the Michigan Daily and OpenSecrets. She studies public policy at the University of Michigan.