Sex abuse victims argue current law limits opportunity for justice

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Traumatized victims of childhood sexual abuse should not be walled off from seeking justice against predators by a fleeting statute of limitation, advocates of legislation argue.

“Should I apologize for my own self, protecting me,” James Keenan, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, said of missing the current legal window.

 Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, is backing the legislation. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, is backing the legislation. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Currently, childhood sexual abuse victims must file suit against predators or institutions within six years of becoming adults — age 24, explained Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, and Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, bill authors.

The two attorneys, who describe their legislation as simple and straightforward, argue the nature of childhood sexual abuse can make meeting a six-year window an impossibility.

Their legislation would eliminate the existing statute of limitations and allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to file suit at any time.

“I didn’t become aware of my abuse until adulthood,” said Keenan, of Savage, who as an altar boy was abused by a priest but saw his lawsuit dismissed by the state Supreme Court on the grounds the statue of limitations   had run out, say advocates.

Both lawmakers and sexual abuse victims spoke of layers of emotions — shame, guilt, despair — that can prevent abuse victims for years to acknowledge to themselves that abuse had occurred.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, is carrying the legislation in the Senate. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, is carrying the legislation in the Senate. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said as a parent and teacher she understood that childhood secrets can remain secrets into adulthood.

She’s backing the bill, Erickson explained, not only to seek justice but to find a means for the victims of sexual abuse to heal.

Perhaps even abusers, cowering for different reasons, might seek repentance.

“So I want to look at this from two perceptions,” Erickson said.

Beyond addressing lingering crimes, advocates argue eliminating the statute of limitations can prevent future crimes.

That’s because sex offenders in their 70s, 80s, hunched over walkers or even in wheelchairs, will continue to abuse children, Jeff Dion, deputy executive director, National Center for Victims of Crime, said.

“Pedophiles don’t retire,” he said.

He deplored the status quo.

“There is really nothing we can do about it unless those kids are ready to tell us,” he said of taking action.

In the case of his abuser, Keenan said,  the trail of sexual abuse traced back to 1961.

“I wasn’t born then,” he said.

Abusers and the institutions sometimes shielding them are fully aware that time provides a threshold for them to cross to escape legal actions, say advocates.

Under the bill, this will change, Latz argued.

“Delay is not a safe harbor for these institutions,” Latz, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said.

Bills dealing with the statute of limitations and sexual abuse litigation have been proposed before.

Simon and Latz view their legislation as superior for its simplicity.

Not that filing a suit regarding actions that took place many years or even decades ago is easy.

It isn’t, Simon said.

But it belongs in the courts.

“This should be in the hands of judges and juries to decide,” Simon said.

Should the lawmakers’ legislation find success, Keenan, for one, isn’t automatically going back to court.

A journey through the legal system isn’t fun, he said.

“It was hard on myself. It was hard on my wife. It was hard on my kids,” said Keenan, who filed suit at age 39 for abuse committed when he was 13 to 15-years-old.

Just before leaving for the State Capitol on Wednesday (Feb. 13), his wife, Keenan said, asked if he would again go to court.

“‘Honey, we’d have to talk a lot about it,’” he replied.

Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]

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