A proposal that would allow victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to sue alleged abusers is headed to the Senate floor after winning overwhelming endorsement in a committee.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would essentially bring current civil law in line with the “delayed discovery” spirit of criminal law.
The bill would permit alleged child victims to file a lawsuit six years from the time they become aware of an injury because of the abuse, and not necessarily from the time the alleged offense took place.
State law now requires the filing of a civil suit within six years of the alleged incident, but the filing clock begins at age 18 for child victims and expires when they turn 24.
Criminal law allows the filing of charges three years from the time an alleged victim notifies authorities.
If it becomes law, the proposed change in the civil statute of limitations dealing with such abuse could leave entities such as schools, day care centers, churches and other institutions potentially liable for employee conduct that took place decades ago.
“We’re very satisfied,” said John Tuma, a former Republican legislator from Northfield who tried last year to pass a similar bill. “This is basically what we wanted, and we knew there would be some compromise.”
The bill, as originally proposed by Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, would have given victims until age 48 to sue. It also would have offered a one-year window in which the statute of limitations would have been waived altogether, including for cases in which suits had been dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
Committee members clearly were uncomfortable with the long proposed extension of the statue of limitations and decided six years would make it easier to sue, but still protect employers such as churches and schools in cases of abuse that happened decades earlier.
“The 30 years is irrelevant,” said Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger, DFL-St. Peter. “The issue is when did a person make the causal connection between the abuse and the injury that resulted. That often comes years later.”
Among those who testified in favor of the bill was Bob Schwiderski, a 54-year-old former Hector resident who along with three other men alleged in a 1994 lawsuit that a priest sexually abused them when they were altar boys in New Ulm in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
“I knew what had happened as a child,” he said before the hearing. “But it wasn’t until late in life that I was able to make the connection between my failed marriage and my alcoholism to the abuse. I can tell you that I had not made the link when I was 24.”
But representatives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, other church groups, child-care providers and school organizations, while acknowledging the plight of scores of adult child sex abuse survivors in the hearing room, mainly opposed the bill because they will have to defend lawsuits based on alleged conduct that may or may not have occurred decades ago.
“What this bill will do is put some businesses out of business,” said Chad Dunkley of New Horizons Child Care.
Added Karen Bockelman, a pastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a member of the Minnesota Religious Council: “Our concern remains the same and that is the difficulty of defending against such claims.”
A similar bill to the one Kubly is sponsoring has been introduced in the House by Rep. Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville.