Our View: Abuse victims have chance to seek justice

PostBulletin.com: In a resounding display of bipartisanship, the Minnesota Legislature has allowed childhood sexual abuse victims a chance to seek justice that was once denied.

The Child Victims Act, which passed the Senate unanimously and the House by an overwhelming 123-3 vote, lifts the civil statute of limitations that prevented anyone 24 or older from filing a lawsuit over sexual abuse that occurred while they were children.

That gave childhood sexual abuse victims just a six-year window to file a civil lawsuit after becoming an adult. The six-year limit is the same time frame that applies to fraud and product liability lawsuits. We strongly believe that childhood victims — who take years, often decades, to come to terms with the sexual abuse they suffered — deserve more consideration than that.

Most Minnesotans agree. A survey by the National Center for Victims for Crime found that 63 percent of Minnesota residents believe child sex-abuse victims should, at any time, be able to sue their abuser or the organization that employed them.

While the high-profile child molestation cases involving the Catholic church, Penn State University and Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault might seem remote to our lives, there’s a statistical likelihood that almost everyone knows someone who was sexually abused as a child. The Centers for Disease Control estimates nearly one-fourth of America’s children are sexually abused before they are 18 years old.

By any standard, that’s an epidemic.

The bill was opposed by a number of groups, such as the Minnesota Religious Council, the Minnesota Child Care Association, Minnesota School Boards Association and Minnesota School Administrators Association. One of their arguments was that large organizations will be targeted by abuse victims because they have greater financial resources than would the accused abusers.

To address those concerns, the bill’s sponsors Rep. Steve Simon and Sen. Ron Latz, both DFLers from St. Louis Park, rewrote the legislation to limit lawsuits against institutions solely to claims of negligence, meaning that plaintiffs need to prove that leaders at the organizations knew about abuse allegations but did little or nothing about them.

The law eliminates the statute of limitations in future civil cases and allow a three-year window to file on past cases. And it didn’t take long to begin having an impact.

The first lawsuit under the new law was filed Wednesday in Ramsey County Court. It accuses Thomas Adamson, a former area Catholic priest, of “unpermitted sexual contact” between 1976 and 1977 with an altar boy at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in St. Paul Park. The lawsuit also named the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona as defendants.

Adamson was ordained a priest in the Winona diocese in 1958 and served in parishes there until 1975, when he was transferred to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where he served until 1985. Adamson, now 78, is believed to be living in Rochester.

While we understand why churches, schools, youth organizations and other institutions are apprehensive about potential lawsuits, such groups still have significant legal protection. Frivolous lawsuits are routinely thrown out for lack of evidence. Even if a case reaches a trial stage, a jury must be convinced.

And sadly, many victims are still too ashamed or intimidated to come forward.

But those who summon the courage to face their abuser(s) should have the opportunity to seek their day in court. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, and abusers and the organizations that protect them shouldn’t escape justice merely because of dates on a calendar.