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North Dakota House rejects expanding statute of limitations for child sex abuse

“These bills were all about giving victims of child abuse hope. Hope after a life of hell,” said the bills' main sponsor, Rep. Austen Schauer, R-West Fargo, before Friday's House vote.

Rep. Austen Schauer speaking before a legislative committee on one of three bills aimed at changing statute of limitation laws on Feb. 3.jpg
Rep. Austen Schauer speaking before a legislative committee on one of three bills aimed at changing statute of limitation laws on Feb. 3. Jeremy Turley / The Forum
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BISMARCK —North Dakota lawmakers rejected three bills that would expand the statute of limitations for civil and criminal actions in childhood sexual abuse cases.

On Wednesday, Feb. 10, the House Judiciary Committee gave all the bills "do not pass" recommendations, and on Friday, Feb. 12, the bills failed to pass on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Opponents said they worried the legislation would open private organizations to a potentially overwhelming flood of decades-old abuse claims, but advocates say survivors have limited options for pursuing justice.

“These bills were all about giving victims of child abuse hope. Hope after a life of hell,” said the bills' main sponsor, Rep. Austen Schauer, R-West Fargo, before Friday's House vote. "Despite today's votes, we want survivors of childhood sexual abuse to know that we will always fight for them, fight for justice."

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One of Schauer's bills, HB 1392 , would create a two-year window for sexual abuse victims to file a lawsuit against an abuser or organization for allegations where the statute of limitations has expired.

HB 1387 would extend the statute of limitations to file a criminal complaint for sexual abuse of a minor from three to 10 years.

Under current North Dakota law, a childhood sexual abuse victim must file a civil lawsuit within 10 years of knowing that the opportunity to do so existed. A third bill, HB 1384 , would open the 10-year window when an attorney licensed in North Dakota advises a victim that a potential claim exists.

Ted Becker, lower right, with House Judiciary screenshot. .png
Clergy abuse survivor Ted Becker (bottom right) testifies remotely before the North Dakota House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 3.

Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks pointed out that the bills did not include public entities and focused on lawsuits against private institutions and said he was worried about exposing organizations to a wave of lawsuits.

"When you create a window for old claims, all the claims come at once, forcing institutions to settle," Vetter said on the House floor. "It becomes a 'he said, she said,' and the defendant is forced to settle rather than facing embarrassment in the community (or) going bankrupt."

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In opposition testimony at a committee hearing, attorney and lobbyist for the State Association of Nonpublic Schools, Shane Goettle, said the bills focused unfairly on private organizations that already have a 10-year limitation for a plaintiff to file a civil suit. Actions against the state must begin within three years of an alleged offense, according to law.

"HB 1382 would resurrect claims long barred by the passage of time for churches and nonpublic schools, but not for public schools, juvenile detentions centers, and other government entities," Goettle said.

Cory Silverman, an attorney who spoke on behalf of the American Tort Reform Association, said he was against opening a window for survivors to resurrect civil suits because such legislation would "result in a surge of decades-old claims" that private organizations would find difficult to defend against in court.

The Catholic Church does not testify on every bill it supports or opposes, said Christopher Dodson, general counsel for the North Dakota Catholic Conference, adding that the church did agree with Goettle's testimony.

Schauer said he had difficulty sleeping the night after the House Judiciary Committee gave his bills a "do not pass" recommendation.

"The argument was primarily that private schools would be discriminated against if this legislation passed," Schauer said. "But that is a red herring. These bills do not discriminate against private schools."

Public institutions are already guided by specific laws and allowed monetary damages for civil claims, and they're held to a higher standard of transparency compared to private organizations, according to an email from Christopher Joseph, legal counsel for the North Dakota Legislative Council.

About 2% of child sex abuse cases ever go before a jury said Kathleen Murray, a Wells County State's Attorney who testified in favor of the bills.

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"In my 20 years of prosecuting, I've never had a child give false information," Murray said.

Since 2002, no state has ever tried a case with false information, said Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, a nonprofit organization focused on protecting children from abuse and neglect.

In a report, Robb said that “there are untold numbers of hidden child predators in North Dakota who are preying on one child after another because the existing statute of limitations provide that opportunity."

“Historically, a wall of ignorance and secrecy has been constructed around child sex abuse, which has been reinforced by short SOLs (statute of limitations) that kept victims out of the legal system,” she wrote.

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