In 2013 Minnesota legislature came together in a historic bipartisan show of support to pass The Child Victims Act. Under that new state law, the civil statute of limitations that previously gave child sex abuse victims until age 24 to sue was removed. Victims over age 24 were given a three-year window to sue for past abuse. Anyone under 24 before the law went into effect — has an unlimited time to file.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, during this historic three-year window more than 800 people brought abuse claims against churches, the Boy Scouts, schools and a children’s theater company. Previously unknown offenders have been exposed. Two Roman Catholic dioceses filed for bankruptcy. Lists of credibly accused priests and thousands of documents have been released. And the heightened scrutiny played a part in the downfall of two bishops.
That window for lawsuits will close on May 25, with exception for claims against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. That deadline was moved up by a bankruptcy judge to Aug. 3, 2015 in order to speed up the archdiocese’s financial reorganization.
I have long advocated for statutes of limitations to be lengthened or lifted all together in cases of child sex abuse. It is necessary to allow for the unique circumstances that exist in abuse cases, and especially those involving clergy. In almost every case children are reluctant or unable to talk about pedophile priests or face their accusers. There are significant and unique barriers that prevent children from reporting what they intuitively know is inappropriate behavior. Fear of the accusing their abuser, the stigma of being abused, and a reluctance to confront the church often keep sexual abuse from being reported. Many victims of pedophile priests are unable to talk about abuse or face their accusers until they are well into adulthood, putting the crime beyond the reach of the law.
The Child Victims Act in Minnesota so clearly illustrates why statute of limitation reform is needed nationwide. In only a limited three-year window, 800 victims were allowed to finally seek justice and begin the process of healing and closure. Speaking for the victims, attorney Jeff Anderson who filed most of the new cases in Minnesota said, “This law has been one of the most transformative and far-reaching laws that have ever been passed — to not only protect kids in the community but to give survivors who have been hurt a voice and a chance to recover some power.”
For too long institutions the church and other institutions have invoked the statute of limitations “defense” either in direct response to being sued or in preliminary negotiations with victims to deter them from taking action.
If we are truly going to prioritize child safety and end the scourge of child sex abuse there can be no place for statutory time limits in abuse cases. Lawmakers must come to realize how hard it is for emotionally damaged victims to come to face what happened to them. There are still victims thousands from the Catholic Church’s priest sex abuse scandals who have never come forward. We must let them begin the process of seeking justice and not continue to allow the statutes of limitations to lock them out of the courtroom.
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