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Senate OKs bill easing lawsuits for child sexual abuse

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Applauding bill passing
Joel Juers, who said he was abused by a teacher at Shattuck-St. Mary's, applauds the Senate's passing of the Child Victims Act, a bill that extends the civil statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse to sue their abusers and institutions that failed to protect them, in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 8, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Minnesota Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would allow lawsuits against churches, schools and other organizations that may have covered up child sexual abuse decades ago.

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 66-0. A similar bill overwhelmingly passed the House last week. Katharine Tinucci, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Dayton, said in an email that she expects the governor will sign it.

Past victims of child sexual abuse said the vote was a relief after years of similar yet unsuccessful efforts to achieve it. 

"It was a powerful moment," said Joel Juers, a victim of child sexual abuse who came to the state Capitol to watch today's vote. "There were so many positive emotions that I couldn't even cry."

The Child Victims Act would drop the statute of limitations for civil suits involving child sexual abuse going forward. For older cases, it would create a three-year window for past victims to file lawsuits against abusers and institutions that may have failed to protect them.

Bill author
Senator Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the chief author of The Child Victims Act, a bill that extends the civil statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse to sue their abusers and institutions that failed to protect them, defends an amendment at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 8, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented victims of sexual abuse in high-profile cases against the Catholic Church and Penn State University, said he intends to file lawsuits against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Diocese of Winona, the Boy Scouts of America and the Northern Star Council, and Shattuck-St. Mary's boarding school in Faribault.

Anderson represents several former Shattuck-St. Mary's students who say they were abused by teacher Lynn Seibel more than a decade ago. Seibel is awaiting trial in Rice County on 14 felony counts of criminal sexual conduct and three related charges for the sexual abuse of male students from 1999-2003.

Anderson said the school failed to protect students from the abuse.

Similar legislation in other states has led to lawsuits against the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts.

Under current state law as interpreted by the Minnesota Supreme Court, victims of child sexual abuse need to file any lawsuits before they reach age 24. Many victims and their supporters say that's not enough time.

Victims often keep abuse secret for decades, and it can take years to realize that depression, drug addiction, or difficulties with intimate relationships may stem from childhood sexual abuse.

The Minnesota Religious Council, which represents Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist churches, lobbied against the bill and has been fighting similar efforts since 2003.

Karen Bockelman, a retired Lutheran pastor who chairs the council, has said the bill would drain churches of money needed to help the poor, and would give victims a reason to delay reporting abuse to police.

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