Editorial: A wider window for civil suits after child sex abuse

Pioneer Press: Minnesota is an outlier, compared with other states, when it comes to giving victims of child sexual abuse only until they reach age 24 — six years after becoming an adult — to file a civil lawsuit.

But under a proposal before the Legislature, they could file a lawsuit at any time, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. Under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, Minnesota would remain an outlier — but 180 degrees the other way, as the only state to give victims the right to pursue civil lawsuits without a time restriction.

Measures seeking to give victims more time to bring civil suits have gone before state lawmakers repeatedly since a Supreme Court ruling in 1996 interpreted the six-year time limit.

Thoughtful people on both sides make compelling points about the proposal. They deserve attention from lawmakers and citizens who want to do right by victims and yet consider what’s at stake for institutions that include churches, schools or youth organizations.

It can take decades before victims recognize the abuse and the extent to which they were harmed and find the strength to come forward. Those who do find themselves barred by the legal technicality of a “woefully short and arbitrary statute of limitation,” advocates say.

The six-year limit is the same that applies to fraud and product liability litigation, House chief author Rep. Steve Simon said at a news conference introducing the measure. “Victims of this kind of abuse deserve better than

“The wounds are unseen but the changes can be profound,” Kathleen Blatz, a former Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice, told us. She is among advocates for the measure, who also include several county attorneys, the National Center for Victims of Crime and organizations that serve child-abuse victims.

The proposal would, however, “open the door to some very old cases” in which it would be “very difficult to get a clear picture of the facts,” said the Rev. Karen Bockelman, chair of the Minnesota Religious Council, a public policy representative of major Christian denominations in the state. Memories fade, documents go missing, witnesses can’t be found and “it can be very difficult to determine the truth,” she said.

Opponents are concerned about the proposal’s broad language and its implications for “a corporation, organization or other entity” that it terms as simply “a cause” of the plaintiff’s damages, Bockelman said.

And the proposal, by omission, she told us, doesn’t “acknowledge that anything has changed,” suggesting churches are continuing to ignore the issue. “That simply isn’t true,” she said, noting that Minnesota churches are “among national leaders in taking proactive steps” on child sex abuse.

Opponents also suggest the proposal might have a negative effect on early reporting of child abuse, she said, with victims feeling they had “all the time in the world.” The earlier abuse is reported, however, the quicker perpetrators “can be identified and removed from positions of responsibility, providing a chance for prevention of future abuse.”

Advocates, though, say eliminating the civil statute of limitations for past sexual abuse cases allows survivors to come forward and identify abusers who have never been caught and may still be abusing children. As a result, they say, others currently experiencing abuse may be encouraged to come forward and those victims may still be under the protection of the criminal statute of limitations.

The issue also is more prevalent than perhaps many of us realize: According to a state health department report, 10 percent of Minnesotans were sexually abused as children. One out of two Minnesotans knows someone who was sexually abused as a child, according to the National Center for the Victims of Crime.

Advocates also cite public awareness of the issue. They point to a recent survey by the National Center for Victims of Crime, which concludes that “more than three out of four Minnesotans are concerned about child sexual abuse, and 63 percent believe child sexual abuse victims should have the right to directly sue their abusers or the institution that facilitated their abuse at any time.”

The U. S. Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to retroactively change the criminal statute of limitations; only civil statutes of limitations may be altered.

Blatz is confident in the protections afforded by our legal system. Cases that aren’t solid typically are weeded out before they reach a courtroom, she says. An attorney needs sufficient evidence on which to build a case, and victims “still must convince a jury.”

Those who oppose changing the law have indicated in the past their willingness to compromise, Bockelman told us. “We’ve worked very hard to do that. We’re open to discussion.”

This year, it looks as if that discussion will lead somewhere new — somewhere between a too-narrow window and one that’s wide open.