Minnesota Child Victim's Act generates nearly 40 lawsuits, church reforms

Older misconduct cases may not have ever surfaced without Child Victim’s Act.

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One year after the Minnesota Child Victim’s Act was passed by the Legislature, the Catholic Church in Minnesota has been hit by a legal cyclone. A woman who stepped forward this year to report abuse because of the law change was photographed recently in attorney Jeff Anderson’s St. Paul office.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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One year ago this month, Minnesota opened its courtroom doors to alleged victims of child sex abuse that occurred decades ago — a step that has rocked the Catholic Church as never before.

More than 40 lawsuits have been filed since then under the new Minnesota Child Victim’s Act, implicating at least 30 Catholic priests in sex crimes against children.

The lawsuits claim the church has mishandled, or covered up, serious abuse charges in every diocese in the state. Five of the six Minnesota dioceses have since made public the names of long-secret priest offenders, revealing more than 100 names to date.

For those who have bottled up memories of clergy abuse for decades, too nervous or fearful to report it, the law has spurred some to step forward, said Christy, a St. Paul mother who sued her abuser last year.

“It’s like a weight lifted from my shoulders,” said Christy, who did not want her last name used.

Christy said she didn’t have a clue that her priest had been accused of molesting others before. Only after hearing news reports about the church’s pattern of moving offenders from church to church did she Google his name and discover she was not alone.

“That’s when I decided to sue,’’ she said.

The new law lifts the civil statute of limitations for child abuse cases, opening a three-year window for people to sue over older cases such as Christy’s.

For nearly 20 years, Minnesotans sexually abused as children had until age 24 to sue their abusers. Child advocates, however, argued that some victims took decades to come to terms with their trauma, and that the time limits for filing claims thus needed to change.

Minnesota is the fourth state to approve a temporary window for filing older lawsuits. Similar legislation is pending in three other states, said Marci Hamilton, a New York law professor and national advocate for such changes.

California witnessed more than 1,100 lawsuits during its one-year window, Hamilton said. About 170 lawsuits were filed in Delaware and about 75 in Hawaii during their two-year windows.

Minnesota, in many ways, has followed the trajectory of its predecessors. Clergy have been charged with offenses ranging from one-time molestation to repeated rape lasting years. The incidents happened from the 1970s to just a few years ago.

‘A pace never before seen’

“But in Minnesota, we’re moving at a pace, at a depth, at a breadth never before seen in other states,” said St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, the lead attorney who has filed clergy sex abuse lawsuits in the three other states too.

Instead of filing lawsuits on behalf of one victim against one clergy member, Anderson has filed “nuisance claims” in Minnesota. Lawyers argue the church’s pattern of handling abusive priests, often moving them from parish to parish, constitutes a public nuisance. That allows them to petition the court for a broad array of information on priests and practices across a diocese.

As a result, the Twin Cities archdiocese alone is producing 40,000 documents for the court. Top church officials were required to submit to questioning, including Archbishop John Nienstedt and former Archbishop Harry Flynn.

Add a whistleblower — former archdiocese canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger — and intense media scrutiny, and the past year has seen a storm of controversy that even the law’s sponsors did not predict.

Rep. Steve Simon, DFL- St. Louis Park, a key author of the Child Victim’s Act, said he never anticipated such a chain of events.

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