We must recognize that the nature of these incidents means that feelings can be repressed well into adulthood.
Childhood sexual abuse is an epidemic. More than 80,000 American kids are sexually abused every year. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they reach age 18. Nearly 70 percent of all reported sexual assaults (including assaults on adults) occur against children ages 17 and under.
Some of these tragedies make high-profile news, like the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal last year and the recent criminal charges against Lynn Seibel, a former teacher at Shattuck-St. Mary’s boarding school in Faribault. Most of these incidents, however, never get reported to police and prosecutors or see the light of day in a civil courtroom. Most victims of childhood sexual abuse lock away memories of horrible trauma deep inside their minds, for many years.
This is not that hard to understand if you think about it. These are frightened kids who often do not fully comprehend what is happening to them. And the vast majority are preyed upon by someone they know and trust: a parent or sibling, a relative, a coach, a teacher, a minister or priest, a Boy Scout leader, or an older family friend. Few actually fall victim to unknown sexual predators — and those few cases are much more likely to be reported promptly to law enforcement.
Most child victims of sexual crimes repress the troubling memories for many years, though these memories will often come bubbling back to the surface at some point in their lives. And when they do, these victims, who are now adults, deserve a chance at justice.
We have done a good job in the last 20 years of expanding the criminal statute of limitations in cases of this nature, so that perpetrators can be found and held accountable for their crimes. Today, in Minnesota, the criminal statute of limitations for a child sexually abused before age 18 is the latter of nine years after the offense or three years after it is reported to law enforcement. In other words, it is nonexistent for practical purposes.
Sadly, the same is not true of the civil statute of limitations. Today, in our state, court interpretation of existing law prohibits the filing of a claim for damages by a victim of childhood sexual abuse more than six years after the trauma was last inflicted. As a society, we must recognize the pain, trauma and feelings of guilt that lead child victims of sexual abuse to repress these incidents for many years, often well into adulthood. It is in the interest of justice and protecting these most vulnerable victims to allow them to seek redress for the pain and suffering they have endured once they finally realize the full extent of their victimization.
Eliminating the civil statute of limitations in these cases would allow child sexual abuse victims to sue their abusers and organizations that may have made such abuse possible or failed to stop it. In my opinion, courageous victims who commence civil lawsuits against their abusers are doing a great service to all our children by helping to prevent the abuse of future victims. Allowing civil litigation is one of the most powerful tools we have to ensure more accountability and to prevent future abuse.
I applaud and support the effort underway at the Minnesota Legislature in HF681 and SF534 to, in essence, eliminate the civil statute of limitations and allow these victims to seek their day in court when they are finally able to do so. I urge you to contact your legislators and ask them to support this important and needed change in our laws. The victims of these terrible crimes deserve no less.
James C. Backstrom is the Dakota County attorney.