As the Scope of Clergy Abuse Comes into Focus, North Dakota Lawmakers Turn Their Backs on Survivors

On the heels of a scathing 2019 report on child sexual abuse and cover-up in North Dakota’s Catholic Churches, the state legislature there dealt a huge blow to survivors and the public, refusing to pass proven anti-crime reforms to protect children and expose abusers. Lawmakers there have scuttled three bills since the report—two that would have granted survivors rights to use the civil courts to expose abuse. The third should have been a no-brainer: it would have required members of the clergy to report child sexual abuse that is disclosed while the clergy member is acting as a “spiritual advisor.”

The 2019 report that inspired the proposed legislation capped a one-and-one-half-year investigation by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Investigators found that in North Dakota’s two Catholic dioceses (Bismarck and Fargo), at least 53 priests had “credible accusations” of abuse. In a state with a population of approximately 148,000 Catholics, the chances that children in every parish encountered these priests are high. The number of potential victims is vast.

Even in light of the devastating findings in the report—including detailed accounts of child sexual abuse and cover-up—lawmakers in the state have refused to do even the simplest thing to hold wrong-doers accountable. What would that be? Opening a retroactive civil window that allows survivors to meet the burden of proof and file claims in civil court—exposing abusers and the people who covered up the abuse.

Such reforms are not unique. In 2019, Arizona passed a landmark legislation that gave adult survivors of child sexual abuse an 18-month window to bring claims in civil courts, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. The law exposed abuse across the state, including widespread abuse in Indigenous communities, where the Catholic Church is notorious for “dumping” accused clerics.

Other civil windows in California, Delaware, Minnesota, and Hawaii have exposed abusers still working with children and preying on Indigenous communities, non-English speakers, the undocumented, and the poor.

It’s time that North Dakota’s vulnerable populations—especially Indigenous communities who have borne the brunt of abuse—gain a voice in the justice system.