Change In Statute Of Limitations Laws Spells Trouble For Catholic Church

Minnesota has becomes the latest state to give child sex abuse victims their day in court.
By @katierucke |
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    In 2013, 12 states either passed or considered legislation that would alter the statute of limitations for child sex abuse claims, making it easier for victims of Catholic priest abuse to come forward, years after the incidents. (Photo/Sharon Mollerus via Flickr)

    In 2013, 12 states either passed or considered legislation that would alter the statute of limitations for child sex abuse claims, making it easier for victims of Catholic priest abuse to come forward, years after the incidents. (Photo/Sharon Mollerus via Flickr)

    Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law last week that stripped away the statute of limitations for child sex-abuse victims. On Wednesday, a 51-year-old Twin Cities man was the first to file a lawsuit under the new law, alleging sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in the 1970s.

    The state of Minnesota is not alone in enacting legislation that alters the statute of limitations for child sex abuse claims. In 2013, 12 states either passed or considered similar legislation.

    “This is the most activity ever,” said Marci Hamilton, chair of public law at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and one of the nation’s leading advocates for ending the statute of limitations on abuse crimes.

    Hamilton told the Jewish Daily Forward that increased publicity regarding child abuse, as well as the legal hurdles victims face as adults when they try to come forward, has led to a change in attitude among the general public.

    “So many victims never get justice,” she said.

    Statute-of-limitations laws differ in each state, with some states giving more leeway than others to survivors who take years or even decades to confront their abusers. As of July 2012, Montana requires survivors to come forward within three years of the crime, while victims in Alabama get only two years. Alaska, on the other hand, doesn’t have a statute of limitations at all.

    Under Minnesota’s new Child Victims Act, survivors of abuse that occurred while they were under the age of 18 have the ability to come forward at any time. Before the legislation, child abuse survivors older than 24 were unable to sue.

    The law also gives adult victims six years to bring a suit against their alleged abuser.

    Democratic Sen. Ron Latz, who authored the Minnesota bill, said the previous statute of limitations was “unfairly narrow” given the level of trauma involved in these kinds of cases.

    “These are folks who for one reason or another either had no specific memory of the abuse, or they repressed it for psychological reasons to protect themselves,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

    The Minnesota Religious Council, the lobbying body for Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist churches, was opposed to the bill. Part of their concern is that religious organizations would be targeted.

    Other opponents of laws that loosen statutes of limitations have cited concerns that people and institutions may be financially liable for an allegation someone brings against them with little evidence.

    “I don’t believe that exposing religious institutions to open-ended, never ending, and potentially devastating civil liability is a smart approach,” Jeffrey Klein, a Democratic state senator in New York, said. “Instead, I think we should give victims a better opportunity to pursue criminal charges against the individuals who commit these crimes.”

    The impact Minnesota’s new law will have is not yet known, but Jeff Anderson, an attorney who is representing the anonymous Twin Cities man in his case against the Catholic diocese and the priest who allegedly abused him, said one thing that is certain is that there will be more litigation as a result.

    “He was suffering in the shadows,” Anderson said of his client. “There are going to be many more [suits] to come, as they should. Now is the time for reckoning.”


    Abuse in the Catholic Church

    Anderson’s client is suing former priest Thomas Adamson, the archdioceses of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and the Diocese of Winona in Ramsey County District Court. Anderson has also asked the archdiocese and diocese to publicly release the names of 46 priests who have “credible allegations of sexual abuse.”

    As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, the lawsuit claims that church leaders knew that Adamson sexually abused boys while he worked in southern Minnesota during the 1960s. Anderson’s client was allegedly sexually abused at the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in St. Paul Park, Minn., from 1976 to 1977. The suit says Adamson “groomed” the boy and his parents and would sexually abuse Anderson’s client after taking him to athletic events or playing basketball with him.

    In response, the archdiocese released the following statement: “Few, if any, other organizations have instituted such rigorous measures to protect young people. We believe that the abuse of young people is always a tragedy, and a social problem that should be confronted by all sectors of society.”

    In 2006, Anderson represented another Minnesota resident, Jim Keenan, 45, who alleged that Adamson molested him in the 1980s. Anderson attempted to argue that the statute of limitations had not yet run out because Keenan had repressed what had happened to him. However, the Minnesota Supreme Court said that because the accuracy of recovered memories had not been scientifically established, they had to dismiss his lawsuit.

    Keenan told the Star Tribune he was optimistic about the new law, saying “it gives an opportunity for guys my age … to feel like they do have an avenue. I know my case is part of the process of making this happen.”

    Washington state resident Barbara Dorris, who says she was 6 when her parish priest began abusing her, had a similar experience.

    “He escaped prosecution, basically, because of the statute of limitations,” Dorris said. “It’s very hard for victims to come forward.”

    She called statute-of-limitations laws “predator friendly” and said they only help the criminals.

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