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Minnesotans in new book on Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal

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Attorney Jeffrey Anderson
Attorney Jeffrey Anderson at a news conference Monday, March 28, 2011. Anderson is a local attorney who is internationally known for suing the Catholic Church on behalf of sexual abuse victims. Anderson will appear with Michael D'Antonio to talk about issues of abuse and the law.
MPR Photo/Matt Sepic

As the state Legislature nears a vote on a controversial bill that would give victims of sexual abuse more time to sue, a new book chronicles the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, including some key characters and cases from Minnesota.

Some victim advocates are pursuing legislation to remove statutes of limitations in abuse cases, a step they see as a final frontier in the reckoning they seek with the church.

The Child Victims Act before the Senate would drop Minnesota's statute of limitations for civil suits involving child sexual abuse. The House version would create a three-year window for victims to bring old cases.

In Minnesota, victims of childhood sexual abuse must file civil suits before they turn 24 - a stricter threshold than many states. Four states have eliminated statutes of limitations for these kinds of cases, and three others have opened windows for victims to file.

It's impossible to know how many cases may have been blocked by the statute of limitations, said Michael D'Antonio, author of "Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime and the Era of Catholic Scandal." His book tells the story of sex abuse cases in a Louisiana parish, first coming to light in 1984 and swelling to a worldwide crisis.

Michael D'Antonio
Michael D'Antonio, author of "Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal."
Photo courtesy of Michael D'Antonio

"As of today, it's remarkable to consider that 500 priests in America have been imprisoned," D'Antonio said. "Tens of thousands of victims have been compensated for the crimes committed against them and virtually every diocese in America has been the subject of investigation, legal action and reform."

The Minnesota Catholic Conference referred a request for comment on the bill to the Minnesota Religious Council, which is lobbying against it on behalf of Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist churches.

The council has been fighting attempts to repeal the statute of limitations since 2003, and this year has been the hardest fight yet, said Karen Bockelman, a retired Lutheran pastor and council chair.

"When there's been a lot of public media attention to things like the crisis in the Catholic Church, or more recently in Minnesota, the Shattuck/St. Mary's case, or you know the Penn State and whole Jerry Sandusky thing -- when that kind of stuff hits the media and gets in the air, it's not surprising that it encourages renewed attempts at changing the statute of limitations," Bockelman said.

Bockelman estimates the Minnesota Religious Council will spend more than $180,000 this year lobbying against the bill. It would be costly for churches to defend against decades-old cases that would divert money from carrying out good works today.

"It's the unknown in some ways. You know, it's hard to know hard to react when you don't know exactly what's going to be coming down the road," Bockelman said. 

And the picture has changed, Bockelman said. She says for more than 20 years, churches have been improving their response to victims and creating safe church policies to prevent the sexual abuse of minors and adults.

The Minnesota Religious Council is not happy with either the House or Senate version of the bill, and is putting its lobbying efforts into coming up with a bipartisan compromise that Bockelman describes as "more nuanced."

The Minnesota School Boards Association, the Minnesota Child Care Association, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and the Minnesota Inter-County Association have also testified against the bill.

Leading the charge in favor of the Child Victims Act is the National Center for Victims of Crime. Deputy Executive Director Jeff Dion anticipates spending $95,000 to lobby for the bill. Dion believes it has a very good chance of becoming law in Minnesota.

Dion disagrees that churches and other institutions could face an unknown number of old cases. Most of the evidence is kept by defendants in their own files, he said, and victims deserve to have it heard.

"We're not looking to change any substantive law. It's just a question of -- imagine if you have to get the clerk's office at the courthouse to file your lawsuit by 5 o'clock because that's when the clerk's office closes," Dion said. "We're just saying 'we want to keep the clerk's office open longer so that people have a longer time to file their suit."

The Minnesota Child Victims Act has cleared all the necessary committees, and could get a vote in the full House and Senate later this month.

"I think to bar [victims] from the legal system, especially when that's the only place where they can get the truth about what happened to them, is a terrible injustice," D'Antonio said.

He talks about the book at 4 p.m. Friday at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He will also read at noon Saturday at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater. Jeffrey Anderson, a local attorney who is internationally known for suing the church on behalf of victims, will also speak.