The Minnesota House could vote today on an overdue measure to allow victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to pursue justice through civil courts.
The Minnesota Child Victims Act would relax the civil statute of limitations, which is unduly narrow and protective of sexual predators. The Senate is considering a similar measure.
Sadly, those lobbying hardest to defeat the needed change include associations of schools, churches and child-care centers. They represent the very kinds of institutions that have dominated headlines for failing to protect children from sexual predators.
Is there really a need to remind the public that former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse just last summer? Or that a Missouri Catholic bishop is still on the job after being convicted last year of a criminal misdemeanor for failing to report abuse?
Under current Minnesota law, individuals abused as children have until age 24 to file suit, which is a stricter standard than in many states. The age limit doesn’t take into account that it can take some victims decades to come to terms with the abuse they suffered. Another consideration: “The states that have very restrictive statutes of limitations tend to have more sex-abuse scandals,” said Jeff Dion of the National Center for Victims of Crimes.
The House measure would eliminate the statute of limitations in future civil cases and allow a three-year window to file on past cases. Lawmakers should support this compromise measure and resist amendments that come up with new age limits, weaken institutional liability or introduce onerous standards of proof.
The Senate version would eliminate the civil statute of limitations altogether, as has been done in four states. That’s a better approach because it would allow victims to seek justice when they are able.
Opponents include the Minnesota Child Care Association, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, the Minnesota Religious Council (lobbying for Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist churches) and others.
They say the changes proposed could hurt taxpayers, divert funds that could be used for children’s programs, and be impossible to defend because of missing witnesses and evidence.
The rhetoric is misleading. Civil suits would still have to meet existing standards of evidence and burden of proof. As far as hurting children: Let’s not forget that institutions have spent millions battling suits involving known predators and trying to prevent the release of evidence showing their complicity in covering up abuse.
Child sexual abuse isn’t a partisan issue. The list of supporters for eliminating or expanding the civil statute of limitations includes abuse survivors, victim advocacy groups, county attorneys, law enforcement officials and others. They know that Minnesota’s existing law is outdated because it insists that childhood sexual trauma can be dealt with by age 24.
The Minnesota Child Victims Act, particularly the Senate’s version, acknowledges that recovery doesn’t fit neatly on a timeline.
It’s time to change the statute of limitations to reflect modern realities. And it should be done in a way that doesn’t provide more wiggle room for institutions to escape accountability.
In doing so, victims who chose to come forward will get their day in court to seek justice against their perpetrators. And, if more victims come forward, there’s a possibility that more sexual predators will be identified before they do harm.
That’s a public safety goal that no one should oppose.