FARGO — Three state legislators, a Republican and two Democrats, aim to revise North Dakota's statute of limitation laws this legislative session to open up windows of time for survivors of child sex abuse to pursue legal avenues in civil courts.
Planning on the bills began before North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem released a report Monday, Jan. 4, stating that because of current statute of limitation laws, criminal charges won’t be filed against any of the 53 priests named in the Fargo and Bismarck dioceses lists of priests who faced substantiated allegations of child sex abuse.
Much of the abuse occurred from the 1950s to the 1980s, and many of the priests named on the lists are dead. Current state law stipulates that the statute of limitations for child sex abuse is 21 years. Failure to report child abuse, a misdemeanor, has a statute of limitation of two years.
Rep. Austin Schauer, R-West Fargo, Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, and Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, are working together on bills that would create an “open window” of two years for sexual abuse victims to file a civil lawsuit, and would extend the statute of limitations from three to 10 years for sexual abuse of a minor, Schauer said.
Another bill that Schauer is working on would change state law to start the 10-year clock for a sex abuse survivor to file a claim for relief to begin at the time of consulting an attorney. "The average age when a person comes forward is 52 years old. It takes that long for someone to even think about coming forward to file a civil lawsuit,” he said.
The bills would not be meant to target the Catholic Church, Schauer said, because abusers are found throughout society. Many come from within the family setting, he said.
“The effort behind this is to send a message of hope to survivors. It’s really sending a message of hope and that we care,” Schauer said.
Hogan said the idea to support legislation that extends the statute of limitations came from a constituent when Hogan was knocking on doors around 2010.
“The original bill stated that a person had 18 months after turning 18 to report a case of sexual abuse while a minor,” Hogan said. “We’ve come a long way since then, but when you compare us to other states we are still very antiquated.”
Jeff Anderson's St. Paul law firm is focused solely on clergy sex abuse cases. Since 1990, his firm has been instrumental in successfully lobbying for extensions to statute of limitation laws in Minnesota and elsewhere, he said.
Many survivors suffer in shame and silence, Anderson said, and creating windows for them to pursue legal options is vital for some type of healing. Such extensions to statutes of limitations apply to all people sexually abused, not just those victimized by clergy, Anderson said.
“But it is their (Catholic) institution that has been insulated from legal accountability, transparency and exposing the truth and only through civil legislation can the truth be exposed. It is the statute of limitations that they’ve hidden behind, and it is public policy in North Dakota and across the nation that has protected predators and those that protect them, instead of kids,” Anderson said.
“That’s why the Catholic church has been sued by us and survivors with whom we work, not hundreds of times, not thousands of times, but tens of thousands of times,” Anderson said.
Christopher Dodson, a lobbyist for the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said he was unsure of the North Dakota bishops’ stances on the proposed bills because they have not yet had a chance to review them.
Paul Braun, a spokesman for the Fargo Diocese, and Sonia Mullally, a spokeswoman for the Bismarck Diocese, did not reply to The Forum's requests for comment on this story.