Criminal charges are not likely to be filed in 10 cases of alleged sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests because the incidents are so old, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said.
The statute of limitations in each case "is going to be a barrier," he said, unless loopholes can be found to circumvent time constraints. "But," Choi added, "I'm pessimistic about that."
Choi's comments follow nearly a year of investigation by St. Paul police into cases of alleged clergy abuse involving the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The criminal investigations in Ramsey County followed a series of lawsuits filed against the church since a 2013 state law allowed the filing of suits for claims dating back decades.
The cases have gripped the state and church while taxing local law-enforcement resources.
Choi said that he expects to announce official charging decisions in about a month regarding the 10 cases, one involving a deceased suspect.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Ramsey County Board voted to approve the hiring of three new staffers in Choi's office to continue investigating the Catholic Church.
In response to the board action, Choi said police and his office will soon embark on "Phase 2" of the investigation, focusing on what church leaders knew about the allegations of sexual abuse, when they knew it and how they responded.
Choi's office is investigating the possibilities that certain conditions could stop the clock from ticking on the statute of limitations, but so far it looks unlikely in the 10 cases.
Advocates with the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, local attorneys and the former director of a local abuse survivor network said they weren't surprised by Choi's prediction.
The statute of limitations for criminal charges has changed repeatedly, and includes a number of variables. Advocates and attorneys say there's no clear, easy way to apply it across the board.
"Short of homicide, as a society, we've made a policy decision that there has to come a time when you just have to say, 'It's too late,' '' said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at the Hamline University School of Law.
"Part of the statute of limitations is that people forget. They might not remember the facts exactly. People die — witnesses," Daly said. "The evidence gets destroyed. Things go missing."
Victims asked to speak up
The statute of limitations for filing sexual abuse civil suits, which require a lower threshold of proof than criminal cases, was expanded in May of 2013 when the Minnesota Child Victim's Act went into effect. The change gave victims of abuse who were 24 or older when the law was enacted up to three years to sue, regardless of when the abuse occurred. Anyone under 24 when the law was enacted has an unlimited window to file suit.
Previously, Minnesotans had until age 24 to sue in such cases.
Victim advocates and Choi said that the absence of criminal charges shouldn't signal to victims or the public that the continuing investigation is without merit.
"There are multiple ways that victims experience justice," said Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "Sometimes it's through a guilty verdict. Oftentimes, it's just the acknowledgment of being heard and being believed."
What's more, survivors of childhood sexual abuse say the ongoing investigations and civil cases have opened up dialogue about sexual abuse, helping victims feel validated while educating the general public.
Bob Schwiderski, the former Minnesota director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he believes the criminal and civil investigations prompted about 40 victims to contact him this year, about double from previous years.
He said the attention to the subject has given many the "courage … to reach out and get some answers."
Despite the likelihood that criminal charges won't be filed in the 10 Ramsey County cases, Choi issued a plea for victims to continue coming forward, even if the statute of limitations could be a barrier. Survivors can play a key role in helping the public understand the scope of the abuse, and identify abusers who are still alive, he said. "At a minimum," Choi said, "we would have a better understanding of the offenders living among us."
New staffers added
For Choi, that knowledge is worth the expense and time that his office, St. Paul police, and survivors are investing in the issue.
On Tuesday, the Ramsey County Board voted to approve hiring one full-time assistant county attorney, one full-time investigator and a student intern from October 2014 through September 2015 at a cost of $268,427 to aid in the ongoing investigation.
In April, commissioners voted to approve one full-time assistant county attorney from May 2014 through April 2015 at a cost of $76,490.
The county attorney's office also has two contracts with NightOwl Discovery totaling $12,010 to help process and index more than 95,000 electronic documents and 10,000 pages of paper documents collected in the investigation.
Choi, meanwhile, declined to say what statutes authorities could apply in the second phase of the investigation. But several local attorneys speculated that authorities would explore possible violations of Minnesota's mandatory reporter law. The law requires people such as educators and clergy members to report suspected neglect and physical or sexual abuse of a minor within 24 hours of learning about it.
The formal charge — failure to report the maltreatment of minors — comes with challenges: The statute of limitations is three or 10 years depending on the circumstances of the case.
A suit filed in the last year alleges that the church covered up abuse by reassigning priests as allegations of sexual misconduct arose. But Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law, said investigating church leaders for conspiracy or aiding an offender is unlikely due to legal definitions of the crimes.
"Fundamentally, conspiracy means agreeing to commit a crime," said Sampsell-Jones. "Knowing about a crime is not the same. Learning about a crime afterward and failing to take sufficient measures is not the same as agreeing to help somebody commit a crime."
Choi declined to talk in detail about what his office and St. Paul police will investigate, but predicted another long year of work ahead. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're still talking about it a year from now," he said.