It has been heart-wrenching to read, over many months, disclosure after disclosure of Catholic priests credibly accused of committing child sexual abuse, and of those who protected them. It is stunning to hear church official after church official declare an inability to “remember” the details.
The past year of disclosures came about because legislation was passed in Minnesota in May 2013 opening the courts to those who suffered sexual abuse. But why only then? Why weren’t disclosures made years ago, so that other children could be protected from the trauma of sexual abuse?
It could have been otherwise. Sexual abuse survivors worked for years to pass similar legislation to open the courts to such disclosure. But the sobering reality is that opponents, including Catholic church leaders, vigorously and successfully resisted its passage.
As an original author of this legislation, I write to set the historical context. In 1989, after significant testimony from mental health professionals, the Legislature passed a law that gave more time to victims of child sexual abuse to bring forward legal actions. Recognizing that the impact of sexual abuse may not surface for years or even decades, the Legislature gave victims six years to initiate legal action starting after they “knew or had reason to know that the injury was caused by sexual abuse.”
Why was the law written this way? Legislative testimony made clear that abused persons, especially children, are often shamed by the abuse and believe they are responsible. They hide it. They don’t understand it. But the devastating effects emerge years later in various dysfunctions, such as adult chemical dependency, mental illness and troubled relationships. Counseling years later may reveal the connection to past abuse. So they come to the courts with this new understanding, not only for their personal healing but, most important, to prevent others from suffering abuse by the same perpetrator.
In 1996, the Minnesota Supreme Court, in a limited interpretation of this legislative intent, closed the door on most sexual abuse victims in a decision that essentially limited their time to come forward to six years after age of majority — by age 24. Yet the law’s authors knew that most victims still struggle at that young age with the devastating impact of abuse and are not strong enough to come forward. So we stepped forward to clarify the original intent of the law and allow more time.
In 1997, we introduced legislation to do just that. We knew that without it, many cases brought by victims would be stopped at the courthouse door, depriving victims of rightful remedies and giving perpetrators opportunity to abuse again.
By this time, stories of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church were rising up around the country. Our bill to clarify original intent, to our surprise, created a firestorm at the State Capitol. A small group of opponents rose up to vigorously oppose its passage. Most influential among those opponents was the Catholic archdiocese, represented at the statehouse by the vicar general.
For 16 years thereafter, legislators tried multiple ways to restore access for victims to the courts, in order to disclose perpetrators, protect children and hold accountable those institutions that protected perpetrators. The issue knew no political party. Bill advocates included current DFLers Rep. Steve Simon and Sen. Ron Latz, and former Republican representatives John Tuma and Peg Larsen.
But key legislators of both parties were also influenced by the strong credibility of the Catholic Church, and year after the year, the legislation was stalled in committee or pulled back when it was clear it would not pass.
To their credit, survivors of child sexual abuse would not give up. Survivors’ court claims were being turned back even when they asked only for disclosure without compensation. They returned to the Capitol year after year to open access to the courts.
How ironic that after all those years, the legislation finally passed both the House and Senate in 2013 with just three dissenting votes. Media coverage over a decade helped build public awareness that this issue was — first and foremost — about protecting children.
Regrettably, there likely will be more disclosures in coming months. That these disclosures were not revealed years ago is the greatest tragedy of all.
Ember Reichgott Junge is a former member of the Minnesota Senate. She is past chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and was the author of legislation to extend the statute of limitations to provide court access for victims of child sexual abuse.