While her mother was in the hospital, this Utah woman’s uncle sexually abused her and her sister. The abuse went on for two years.
This was in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until much later in her life that she was given a chance to seek justice in civil court. In 2016, Utah lawmakers passed a bill that gave abuse victims a chance to sue their perpetrators, removing far more limited timelines.
She filed that lawsuit in 2018, but a Utah Supreme Court ruling last week dealt the 55-year-old Lehi woman a devastating blow: The high court found that state legislators didn’t have the authority to pass a law that revived time-barred lawsuits.
It left the woman’s civil action against her abuser all but dead.
“I pray every day,” she said Monday, tears filling her eyes. “But it always just goes in his way. In his favor.”
She was one of six Utah women who spoke out Monday, sharing painful stories about how they were molested as children and couldn’t find justice as adults. They identified their abusers largely as family members: Her stepfather. An uncle. Her older brother.
All spoke about how frustrated they were by a system that largely protected the men who abused them. Some of the men served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — even as some local church leaders knew of the abuse. Some were never prosecuted criminally, even after the women reported them to authorities years later.
They are men who now can’t be sued civilly for what they did all those years ago.
“It’s like they committed a perfect crime,” the Lehi woman said. “A child isn’t going to speak up for themselves. You’re humiliated. You’re embarrassed. It’s just hard to speak out.”
For many of these survivors, it took years of therapy before they were ready to report what had happened to them or talk about it publicly.
Jamie Nagle recalled that she’s held a lot of titles. Mom. Wife. Former Syracuse mayor.
But for a long time, she identified herself as someone who was dirty. Ashamed. Not worthy because of the abuse she suffered throughout her childhood.
“What happens when you are abused, you internalize all of that,” she said. “You don’t have anybody to protect you from this assault going on your whole life. You turn inside yourself. And for me, it was this self-loathing that carried on forever.”
Laura vonGermeten’s voice shook as she recalled her abuser keeping her silent for years, threatening that if she spoke out, her father would kill him — and her dad would go to prison for murder.
“And so began the reality that the perpetrator will never be as punished as me or those who tried to protect me,” she said.
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but those named in this article requested to be identified.
Utah lawmakers first passed legislation in 2015 that eliminated the deadline, or statute of limitations, for victims to bring civil lawsuits against their childhood abusers. But the law didn’t apply to older cases, and anyone who was a day older 22 when it took effect was still unable to sue.
Former Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored the legislation, told The Tribune in 2017 that he fielded calls from residents for a year after the law passed, people who were abused as children and asked if the law could help them.
He would ask, “How old are you?”
Many were over 22 years old. He told them the law wouldn’t apply in their case, but promised he would work to remedy that.
A year later, Ivory proposed legislation that revived previously barred claims. Those who could not bring a civil lawsuit under the old law now had either a three-year window starting in May 2016 to file suit or until 35 years from their 18th birthday — whichever is longer.
That opened the door for Terry Mitchell to file a lawsuit against a federal judge, alleging he raped her in the 1980s when she was a 16-year-old witness to the murder of two Black Salt Lake City joggers and he was an attorney who prosecuted their killer.
But the Utah Supreme Court ruled last week in her case that her lawsuit against Richard Warren Roberts couldn’t proceed because her claims fall outside of the statute of limitations.
The ruling, written by Associate Chief Justice Thomas R. Lee, says that while the “problems presented in a case like this one are heart-wrenching,” the court had to rule based on the Utah Constitution.
“We have enormous sympathy for victims of child sex abuse. But our oath is to support, obey, and defend the constitution,” Lee wrote, “And we find the constitution to dictate a clear answer to the question presented.
The court found that the Legislature lacked the power to make this move retroactive.
At the Monday news conference, Mitchell recounted what it took for her case to reach the Utah Supreme Court — an unanswered plea with a victim advocate organization for help, an investigation by the Utah attorney general’s office, a lawsuit filed, thanks to a law change.
She never received victim services, she said. The investigator asked if she had enjoyed being raped or if she had an orgasm. Then, her lawsuit ultimately was thrown out by the Utah Supreme Court.
“Had I not gone all the way that I’ve gone, I would have never believed that Utah could treat victims so poorly,” she said. “Ignore them. Smear them. Stalk them. Threaten them the way that I have been had this not happened to me. And I know, after talking to many victims, I’m not the only one. As long as we turn a blind eye to it, we all are to blame. And that has to end now.”
Mitchell and the other survivors on Monday sat behind signs that read, “Utah Silence Breakers.” They say that they’re done being quiet, that they want their voices to be heard and their stories told to help prompt a change to Utah’s Constitution to allow them to seek a civil remedy against their abusers.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, vowed to fight with them. She said Monday that she’s exploring a constitutional amendment.
She worked with Ivory on the initial law change in 2016 and said she was “extremely disappointed” with the Utah Supreme Court’s ruling.
“We’re not going to let it go,” she said, “because many times when someone is a victim of child sex abuse, it’s not until later in life that they fell comfortable talking about it and dealing with the trauma. This has been a great setback for our survivors here in Utah.”