A bill to get rid of the statute of limitations for child sex abuse is facing a mysterious hurdle in the Hawaii Legislature, even though lawmakers in both chambers appear to agree that it’s a good idea.

The House and Senate passed nearly identical proposals, with each draft of House Bill 18 acknowledging that Hawaii’s current time limit for filing a lawsuit may prevent victims from coming forward because it can take decades to come to terms with the abuse.

The only difference between the two bills? The date when the measure would go into effect.

Oxybenzone Hearing Capitol Chair Rep Chris Lee listens to lively testimony. 31 jan 2017
Rep. Chris Lee is the lead negotiator for the House on the bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for cases of child sex abuse. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The Senate draft says the measure would be effective upon its approval. The House version’s effective date is Jan. 28, 2081.

Adding a far-off effective date is a common practice in the Legislature when lawmakers want to continue discussing bills. But advocates for HB 18 say they don’t understand why the House wouldn’t simply have adopted the Senate version after it passed both chambers.

“It seems like somebody has made a dispute out of nothing,” said Mark Gallagher, a Kailua attorney who has represented many plaintiffs in cases involving allegations of child sex abuse.

The House easily could have agreed with the Senate draft, Gallagher said. Instead, the House assigned negotiators who are charged with resolving differences with the Senate version.

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That’s concerning to Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a Republican and the bill’s author.

“If we eliminate the statute of limitations, the message we send to potential abusers of minors is that you never will be safe,” she says. “I’m hoping it’s going to make it.”

The lead House negotiator is Judiciary Committee Chairman Chris Lee. He says it’s still possible that the House could agree with the Senate version and that HB 18 is among a number of bills that the House is considering.

“We’re looking at the Senate draft as it came back and looking to see what the appropriate next step is,” he said, adding that the process includes conferring with attorneys, agencies and colleagues to vet the bill.

Lee said the House has until the end of the session to agree to the Senate draft. But negotiations — if they occur — are supposed to wrap up by the end of the week. None have been scheduled yet.

HB 18’s detractors include the state attorney general and the insurance industry who raised concerns about allowing survivors to sue after long periods of time. It’s unclear whether House lawmakers share those misgivings.

The ambiguity is frustrating to supporters of the bill like Gallagher who noted HB 18 had a lot of support throughout the session.

“There’s a problem over there in the House and it’s just a question of whose fingerprints are on it,” Gallagher said. “It seems like this is just one of those issues that we face so often with bills at the end of the legislative session, that things get killed and people hide so that they don’t look like they’re responsible for what they did.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki did not respond to messages left Tuesday seeking comment.

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