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Survivors of former referee’s sexual abuse call for changes to statutes of limitations

Colin Jackson

Current state law gives the latter of either 15 years after an offense, or until the victim’s 28th birthday, to file criminal charges for sexually assaulting a minor in the second or third degree.

Cory Rens was around eight years old when he said he first met the now-incarcerated Gerald Sutter.

Sutter spent years as a Lansing area sports referee and Rens said he was best friends with Sutter’s stepson at the time.

Earlier this year, Sutter was sentenced to several years in prison over first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct charges.

During a press conference in Lansing Wednesday, Rens said he was among Sutter’s victims.

Rens said he came forward as a child but was largely ignored. Now with some gray hair, he reflected on developing a “tough guy” persona to avoid being looked at differently.

“That’s mainly the reason a lot of people don’t come forward until they’re older, they don’t care. They don’t care. At that point, they don’t care what nobody thinks about them. I came forward at a young age and I was told I was crazy,” Rens said.

Shawn Sutherlin, now 41 years old, said he met Sutter while Sutherlin was 16 and working at the concession stand at a local athletics center.

Despite Sutter ultimately facing charges, imprisonment, and a lawsuit for his behavior, both Rens and Sutherlin feel like they were prevented from getting their sense of justice.

That’s because Michigan’s statute of limitations had expired on both Rens’ and Sutherlin’s experiences by the time they approached local prosecutors as adults.

Sutherlin says after seeing others come forward, he explained his story to prosecutors in hopes of receiving justice. But he was told he was too late.

“I was immediately met, well not immediately, after about two hours, met with 'There’s no possibility of that.' And that’s, that’s crushing after sharing such a sensitive, raw story,” Sutherlin said.

Sutherlin and Rens are now calling on state lawmakers to extend the statute of limitations to ensure other survivors don’t receive that same feeling.

Current state law gives the latter of either 15 years after an offense, or until the victim’s 28th birthday, to file criminal charges for sexually assaulting a minor in the second or third degree.

For civil lawsuits, survivors have either until their 28thbirthday or three years after they recognize the abuse to file a legal action.

When that law was updated, it included a two-year lookback window meant to give survivors of former Michigan State University athletics doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse time to sue.

But state Representative Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp) said all survivors deserve more time to come forward.

“Survivors of sexual abuse shouldn’t have to hire a lobbyist and get laws passed just for the opportunity to have their day in court,” Brixie told reporters during a press conference Wednesday.

Brixie is leading a bill package currently before the Michigan House of Representatives that would give survivors until the latter of 10 years after the claim, the victim’s 52nd birthday, or seven years after coming to terms with the abuse, to sue. Brixie’s bill would also provide a two-year window for any survivor to revive a legal claim.

Another bill in the package would scratch out the state’s criminal statute of limitations for second- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct against a minor altogether.

The legislation made it out of committee in late October but did not see a floor vote in the final days of the year’s legislative session.

Some critics of opening up a revival window and extending the statute of limitations are raising concerns over what that would mean for due process — especially under the prospects of some evidence and witnesses no longer being available over time.

First-degree criminal sexual conduct does not have a statute of limitations under current state law.

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