Child Victims Act wins unanimous state Senate approval

Applauding bill passing
Joel Juers, who said he was abused by a former 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

Minnesota victims of child sex abuse may soon have more time to sue their abusers, now that the Minnesota Senate followed previous House action to pass the Child Victims Act. The bill also would allow victims to sue schools, churches or any other group that they say failed to protect them.

Supporters of the bill watched from the public gallery above the Senate floor as the votes came in on Wednesday. One of them, Joel Juers, of Cambridge, spoke as he kept his eyes on the vote tallies.

"From the beginning, there was one 'yes' vote, and zero 'nays,' and then two and then 15, and then 20, and then 30, and still zero 'nays,'" he said. The final vote was 66-0 to zero, and Juers was stunned.

"It was like the entire Senate was standing next to me saying, 'We understand your plight. We understand your story, and we stand behind you," he said.

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Juers went to police last year to accuse former Shattuck-St. Mary's boarding school teacher Joseph Machlitt of sexually abusing him more than three decades ago. Machlitt confessed to the abuse in a interview with state investigators in October, according to a criminal complaint.

However, criminal sexual conduct charges against Machlitt, were later dropped because the alleged crimes were too old to prosecute.

Another former teacher Shattuck-St. Mary's teacher, Lynn Seibel, faces 14 felony counts of criminal sexual conduct in a separate case stemming from charges made by six former Shattuck-St. Mary's students.

"It was a powerful moment," Jurers said of the Senate vote. "There were so many positive emotions that I couldn't even cry."

The House passed a similar bill last week. A spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Dayton said she expects he will sign the bill into law.

If that happens, Juers and other Minnesotans who say they suffered sexual abuse as children would be able to sue their alleged abusers and any institutions that were negligent. Right now, those lawsuits are not allowed after the victim turns 24 years old.

State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, authored the bill. He says the current law is unfair.

"We need the courthouse to be open to them when they are able to come forward. Those legally responsible -- perpetrators and those that protect them -- can escape justice just because of the passage of time."

The bill gets rid of the civil statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse cases going forward. Older cases would be treated differently. The bill gives those victims three years to file lawsuits.

The Minnesota Religious Council, which lobbies on behalf of Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal churches, opposed the change. It's fought off similar efforts since 2003. Members of the group testified earlier this session that allowing victims more time to sue would open up churches to costly lawsuits that would take money away from helping the poor. The council did not respond to an interview request.

Yesterday several lawmakers raised questions about how the law would affect churches and other organizations.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said the Legislature should be careful.

"Everyone in this room should be having great concern about authorizing liability for churches, for our schools, for businesses, that since the time of these events, probably have very questionable evidence available to defend themselves," she said.

In other states that passed similar laws, victims have filed suits that allege negligence by churches and others. St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson says he expects the same will happen in Minnesota.

Anderson has represented hundreds of people who say they were sexually abused as children. Now he says those clients will get their day in court.

"They can bring civil damage claims against the individual that offended them and expose that individual to the community. They can also hold the institutions and the employers that chose to protect the offenders instead of the kids accountable for their negligence in their role, for their role, which means that the communities can be a safer place," he said.

If the bill is signed into law, Anderson says he will sue institutions he believes covered up or didn't do enough to prevent child sexual abuse. His list includes the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the Diocese of Winona, the Boy Scouts, and Shattuck-St. Mary's boarding school in Faribault.

Juers doesn't know whether he'll file a lawsuit.

"Right now, at this moment, I just feel empowered, and that may in itself just be enough," he said.

Lawmakers say they will work out minor differences before sending the bill to the governor's desk.