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Shattuck sex abuse allegations propel proposed law aiding sex abuse victims

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Shattuck-St. Mary's School
A school bus enters the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary's School Wed., Oct. 10, 2012, in Faribault. The Rice County Attorney filed charges against Lynn Seibel, a former teacher at Shattuck-St. Mary's School, accusing him of having sexual contact with students.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

The child sexual abuse allegations involving a Shattuck-St. Mary's teacher have become a focal point for state lawmakers backing a bill that would make it easier for victims of past abuse to file lawsuits against institutions that failed to protect them.

Former teacher Lynn Seibel is in jail facing 14 felony counts for the alleged sexual abuse of six students at the Faribault boarding school from 1999 to 2003 and three related charges. The students are now adults, and state law prevents them from seeking civil damages against the school.

Minnesota, like many states, has a statute of limitations for civil cases brought by victims of child sexual abuse. Minnesota's law requires suits to be filed before the victim turns 24.  State lawmakers introduced legislation this year that would allow victims to sue institutions and individuals regardless of age. 

"Today in Minnesota, the courthouse doors are slammed shut at age 24 for any victims of childhood sexual abuse," said the bill's author, state Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins.

The Minnesota Child Victims Act goes before the House Judiciary Committee today. It faces opposition from the Minnesota Religious Council, a lobbying group that represents many of the largest religious organizations in the state. 

Across the country, attorneys and advocates for victims are pushing back against deadlines that make it difficult to file lawsuits against churches, schools and other institutions that did not protect children. 

Five states--Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida and Maine--have eliminated most civil statutes of limitations for child sex abuse. Six other states are considering similar legislation, spurred in part by sex abuse scandals involving the Catholic Church and Penn State. Simon said he hopes the case involving Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault will convince lawmakers to pass the bill in Minnesota.  

The Minnesota Capitol
The Minnesota Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. The Minnesota Child Victims Act goes before the House Judiciary Committee today.
MPR Photo/Hart Van Denburg

Former Shattuck-St. Mary's students who allegedly suffered abuse are now in their late 20s and early 30s. They have not spoken publicly, nor have their names been released. The investigation began last year when a former student told a probations officer of abuse by Seibel. That disclosure led police to more students and more allegations. 

In a written statement, Shattuck-St. Mary's said it knew nothing of Seibel's alleged crimes. However, several former teachers told MPR News that adults at the school knew of some allegations but failed to call police.  Seth Hedderick, a former teacher who lived in the same dormitory as Seibel, said he walked into a "naked dance party" supervised by Seibel. He said he reported the incident to top two administrators but no one treated it as a criminal matter. 

Simon, the bill's author, said the Shattuck-St. Mary's case shows why it's important to allow victims more time to come forward.

"The way I do the math, every single one of the alleged victims of Mr. Seibel would just be plum out of luck in Minnesota right now ..." Simon said. "They could not confront the institution that allegedly swept his abuse under the rug."

Attorney Jeff Anderson, who's represented hundreds of clergy abuse victims in cases against the Catholic Church, said he's spoken with 13 former Shattuck-St. Mary's students who provided similar accounts of being sexually abused by Seibel.

"In every instance in which we've interviewed these kids, I call them kids, now adults, it seems to have shaped who they've become and robbed them of something that they could have been," he said.

Anderson said the victims have struggled with intimacy and trust. Some have begun therapy, he said, and all are still coming to terms with what happened. 

He argues the law should be changed to allow victims more time to come forward and to hold institutions accountable. But if that doesn't happen, he said, he'll likely file a civil suit on behalf of former Shattuck-St. Mary's students and ask a judge for a different interpretation of the current statute, although he acknowledges similar efforts have failed in the past. 

Minnesota law says a victim has until the age of 24 to file a civil suit or within six years of realizing the harm caused by being sexually abused as a child. Similar "discovery" provisions in other states have allowed victims to file lawsuits years later when they connect early sexual abuse to depression, addiction or other problems.

But the Minnesota Supreme Court has interpreted the "discovery" portion of the law as meaning six years from the age of 18, not six years from the actual date a victim connects the dots, Anderson said.

Other states' laws on civil statutes of limitation are equally complicated, which makes it difficult to make comparisons.

South Dakota allows people to sue until the age of 21, or within three years of becoming aware of harm caused by the abuse. Once victims turn 40, they can only sue the perpetrator. 

Georgia distinguishes between lawsuits against the perpetrator and lawsuits against organizations or people who should have prevented the abuse. Claims against perpetrators must be failed before the victim turns 23. Negligence claims must be filed two years earlier. 

Illinois has no civil statute of limitations for certain serious crimes, such as predatory criminal sexual assault of a child. For other sexual abuse crimes, it has a 20-year delayed statute of limitations, which allows victims to file lawsuits up to the age of 38.  

Legal scholar Marci Hamilton, who represents several victims at Penn State, said many states created laws years ago that protected perpetrators, and now those laws protect schools and churches as well.

"The statute of limitations is an enormous barrier in the vast majority of states, sadly," Hamilton said.  She called Minnesota's current time limit "tiny."

A WINDOW TO SUE

Lobbyists who represent religious organizations in Minnesota are scrutinizing the bill that would eliminate civil statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse.

The initial draft introduced in the House would have eliminated all civil statutes of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse. Rep. Simon later amended the bill, in response to concerns from religious groups, to create a different process for victims of past abuse. 

The amended bill, which will go before the House Judiciary Committee today, would create a three-year window during which anyone who suffered child sexual abuse in the past could file civil suits against institutions or perpetrators. At the end of the three-year period, no one else would be able to be held civilly liable for past abuse. All future cases of new abuse would have no civil statute of limitations.  

The Senate version of the bill, authored by state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, has passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits a vote on the floor. It allows for civil suits to be filed at any time in child sexual abuse cases and makes no distinction between past and future abuse.

The Minnesota Religious Council, the lobbying group that opposes the bill, represents the Catholic dioceses of Minnesota, the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, the six Minnesota synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and the United Methodist Church. 

The group's chair, retired Lutheran pastor Karen Bockelman, of Duluth, said churches are concerned about being held liable for abuse that may have taken place decades ago. She said it can be difficult to find adequate evidence for a judge or jury to review in older cases.

"Records get lost, memories fade, witnesses may have moved or died, the perpetrator may be unable to be located and may have died," Bockelman said.  

She said that extending the statute of limitations could also drain churches of money needed to help the poor and give victims a reason to delay reporting abuse to police. 

"You're dealing with the words of a victim, which need to be heard and taken very seriously, but the time and money that goes into defending these very, very old cases often comes from time and money that would be spent on developing safe church practices and preventive practices or that would be spent on all the good things that these organizations do," she said.

Bockelman said the group is also concerned that the bill leaves churches vulnerable to civil suits in past cases in which a church may have unknowingly hired a pedophile.

The Minnesota Religious Council wants the bill changed so it would not allow lawsuits against churches for what's known as "vicarious liability," in which an employer can be held liable for certain actions by employees. Right now, the House version of the bill would allow past victims to use the three-year window to pursue those claims.

Simon said he's talking with lobbyists and will consider amending the language if that's what's needed to pass the bill, but he said the main argument from churches opposing the bill comes down to money.  

"It's about the money, and pretty much only about the money," he said. "They don't want to pay money to answer for what they've done in the past."

Gov. Mark Dayton and his office haven't had an chance yet to review the proposals, said press secretary Katharine Tinucci.