Arizona Capitol

Committee Republicans Block Survivor Testimony on Arizona Child Sex Abuse Bill

On May 20, 2019, Lezleigh Jaworski speaks publicly for the first time about the sexual abuse she endured when she was 11 years old.
On May 20, 2019, Lezleigh Jaworski speaks publicly for the first time about the sexual abuse she endured when she was 11 years old. Elizabeth Whitman
The first time Lezleigh Jaworski spoke publicly about the sexual abuse she endured as an 11-year-old was on Monday morning, during a press conference at the Arizona State Capitol.

Immediately afterward, Jaworski, who is now 33, sat through a hearing of the House Rules Committee. Its members were deciding what to do with a bill that could directly affect the ability of survivors like her to file lawsuits against their abusers.

But the five Republicans on that eight-member committee did not want to hear what survivors like Jaworski thought of the proposed legislation.

Typically, the Rules Committee doesn't allow for testimony, so Democratic Representative Diego Espinoza asked Chairman Anthony Kern, a Republican, to create an exception.

For one thing, several survivors were there and ready to speak, Espinoza pointed out. For another, the bill in question was one of three separate bills floating around the Arizona Legislature that would change the civil statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Espinoza said he wanted to know how those survivors felt about the differences between those bills, and whether they'd be for or against the one at hand, HB 2746 (for the record, they're against it, and this is why).

"I’d like to hear from them, I really would," Espinoza said, sounding almost pleading.

Kern, unsympathetic, replied, "Going back to my original comment on the previous bill, we did hear two hours of testimony there."

Espinoza pushed back. “It’s a different bill, sir," he said. "You’re speaking of two different bills.”

The bill Kern was referring to, SB 1101, would have given survivors until the age of 30 to sue, and it would've granted previously time-barred victims a one or two-year window in which to file suit. It was heard in the House Appropriations Committee in early April, where Chairwoman Regina Cobb blocked it from going to a vote.

HB 2746, on the other hand, introduced just last Thursday, would have given survivors until the age of 30 to file a civil suit, with no deliberate retroactive opportunities for anyone older than that to sue. Current law gives survivors until the age of 20 to sue in civil court, unless their abuser is charged in criminal court, which buys them one year from the disposition of that case — and that's still only if prosecutors decide to file charges.

For those reasons, advocates and experts say HB 2746 neither gives survivors a fair shot at justice nor protects current or future victims.

click to enlarge The five Republicans on the House Rules Committee - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
The five Republicans on the House Rules Committee
Elizabeth Whitman
But Kern was insistent. “It’s a very similar bill,” he said, eliciting drawn-out murmurs of "Noooo" from the audience. He told Espinoza, "We heard lots of testimony then. I'm not going to hear testimony now."

Democratic Representative Athena Salman, tearing up, sounded quietly livid.

"I’m trying to do my job as a state representative, and I cannot do my job without hearing the testimony," she said. "This problem is so prevalent. It is a human tragedy," she said, referring to the sexual abuse of children.

Soon, a 5-3 vote along party lines vote settled the matter: The survivors shall not speak.

Kern, Vice Chairman T.J. Shope, House Speaker Rusty Bowers, and Representatives Warren Petersen and Becky Nutt — all Republicans — voted against Espinoza, Salman and their fellow Democrat Domingo DeGrazia.

Why? Money, apparently.

In the words of Kern: "We have the obligation to not only protect those that have been affected by these abuses, but we have a constitutional right to protect businesses and people that are innocent out there."

The insurance industry has lobbied against bills that would create a window allowing survivors to file lawsuits retroactively.

In a five-page letter sent to Republican Representative John Allen in early April, the American Tort Reform Association said it was "concerned" with the retroactive window in SB 1101, claiming that "organizations such as schools, boys and girls clubs, and others will be at risk of claims based on actions of people that may no longer be alive."

Mike Low, lobbyist for the Mutual Insurance Corporation of Arizona, which is against SB 1101, has previously told Phoenix New Times that opening up a window to revive time-barred claims "could create real chaos from our standpoint." He said his client hasn't formally taken a position on HB 2746 yet, but called it an "improvement," a word that Kern and other Republicans wore out on Monday during the House Rules Committee meeting.

SB 1101 — the only bill on this subject that has received a hearing — created a window "where anybody at any time without any proof can file a sexual offense claim, and that to me was nothing more than attorneys lining their pockets,” Kern said.

HB 2746, he said, was better. "It gives victims a voice."

Someone in the audience, where the silenced victims sat, let out a quiet but audible, "Booooooo."

The vice chairman, Shope, took some time to expound on why HB 2746 was so great. It extended the statute of limitations from the age of 20 to the age of 30, he said, which was "undoubtedly an improvement." As Shope waxed on, Kern nodded approvingly.

"Well said, Vice Chair," Kern said, after Shope finally finished.

"He's like the worst person ever!" one survivor in the audience whispered to the woman next to her, as Kern spoke.

The bill passed, 5-3, out of committee, and received a second read on Monday. Boyer said he hoped the full House could meet to discuss the bill.

click to enlarge Lezleigh Jaworski. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Lezleigh Jaworski.
Elizabeth Whitman
Republican State Senator Paul Boyer, who sponsored the other bills, SB 1101 and SB 1255, and described HB 2746 as a "sham," told reporters after the House Committee meeting that he is still holding out on a budget vote until one of his bills is brought to the floor for a vote.

Afterward, Jaworski, who is now 33 and a registered Republican, told New Times, "I've waited 20 years to have a voice."

But Republicans, she said, "don't even want to hear what we have to say."

"It's never going to matter to them," she said. "I feel let down by my own party."

Jaworski learned when she was 22 that the family member who abused her also abused her sisters. Her younger sister was the first to speak out.

During the press conference Monday morning, she described how the abuse had torn apart her family. Meanwhile, the family member who abused them is still out there. He can still date women who have children, she said. If he wanted, he could work in a school.

"They think it's all about money," Jaworski told New Times, referring to the lawmakers who had silenced her that day. She didn't want money, she said. "I want people to know what he's done."

(Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Lezleigh Jaworski's last name. We apologize for the error.)
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.