Limiting culpability for sexual abusers

As a new wave of sexual abuse allegations against priests shakes churches nationwide, Minnesota law continues to hamper victims. Several decisions by the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have placed an overly restrictive burden on victims to bring their cases within the statute of limitations or lose their rights to sue at all. A bill currently before the Legislature takes a more reasonable view of the typical victim’s circumstances, but its proposal should go further in providing useful legal protection.

The state’s courts have ruled that Minnesota’s six-year time limit on sexual abuse claims begins to run when a “reasonable person” in the victim’s position “knew or should have known” he or she was abused. But when a victim’s parents and religion label the abuser as trustworthy beyond reproach, the victim deserves more than six years to deal with the emotional fallout, consult their lawyers and piece their cases together.

The statute of limitations is designed to prevent things like victims of a breached contract lying in wait until an opportune moment to sue the offender. It is inappropriately applied when it strips away, by the victim’s mid-20s, the right to sue for an intensely personal violation. The same person the courts say should “reasonably” realize by the age of sexual maturity he or she was abused is subject to a variety of unreasonable forces that make this type of suit difficult to present.

Legislators in both parties are sponsoring a bill to delay the beginning of the statute of limitations period, but although this action is a step in the right direction, it will only replace one legal complication with another. The more useful solution is to entirely repeal the statute of limitations for sexual abuse by priests, and perhaps others such as teachers, in similar positions.

The Legislature should stamp trusted adults’ sexual abuse of children with an infamy similar to murder, which our laws have long held is so heinous the offender should never become immune to accountability. Such a law would show compassion for victims and put offenders on notice that they can be held responsible whenever a victim can put a case together.

At the same time, the Legislature should keep the statute of limitations for religious organizations and schools boards. Extending the period of liability for these institutions, rather than the individual perpetrator, would encourage them to cover up evidence of abuse. Keeping the statute of limitations allies the institutions with the government and the victim against the person ultimately responsible.

The passage of years since the offense might mitigate the appropriate punishment for a sexual abuser, but it should never be allowed to remove the offender’s culpability. Victims carry the memories of abuse their entire lives; they deserve one day in court to hear a just judgment pronounced.