Sex abuse victims say Minn. law brought hope, chance for justice

Abuse survivors
Abuse survivors Al Michaud, left, and Jim Keenan, right, embrace after each spoke at a news conference announcing a lawsuit settlement against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona on Oct. 13, 2014 at the Landmark Center in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file

As a kid, Jon Landstrom spent hours in the pool churning out lap after lap. His dedication paid off when he won a spot on the Roseville Stingrays, an elite regional swim team.

But an encounter with an assistant swim coach would change how he felt about going to the pool.

"He wanted to have his hands on me," Landstrom recalled. "Even if it was in front of people, he wanted to pet me or have his hands on me."

The inappropriate behavior escalated until one day the coach sexually molested him, he said. "He called me tiger, which to this day gives me the creeps. It was sick."

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This was the 1970s and Landstrom was only 12 years old. He said he was scared and didn't know who to tell about what was going on. So he kept quiet. Eventually, he went to therapy and began talking about it with his family. In 2012, he called a lawyer, but the attorney said he couldn't help — the statute of limitations had expired and there was no legal remedy.

It was true. For years, victims of childhood sexual abuse from long ago had little standing in Minnesota courts. In 1989, Minnesota passed a "delayed discovery" law that gave victims six years from the time of adult awareness of past abuse to file suit. In 1996, the Minnesota Supreme Court interpreted that to mean six years after becoming an adult, that is age 24.

The ground shifted in 2013 when the Legislature passed the Minnesota Child Victims Act. The law lifted the statute of limitations, giving past victims of child sexual abuse three years to sue abusers and the organizations that employed them or directed their volunteer activities.

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

That window closes today. In those three years, more than 900 people have sought damages for incidents that would've been barred under the old law. The Child Victims Act brought many new hope and a chance for justice. It's also shaken the Catholic church and other institutions.

"There have been resignations. There have been prosecutions. There has been kind of a public shaming," said Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul attorney who filed that first case under the act and hundreds more that followed.

Jeff Anderson
Attorney Jeff Anderson in his St. Paul law offices on May 9.
Todd Melby for MPR News

The transparency "has increased public awareness and that has increased institutional awareness," he added. "So yes, every day, every day single day, I believe we are seeing change."

The near-unanimous approval for the act masked a tough fight in the years before its passage.

In 2007, then-state Rep. Steve Simon began working on a bill that would eventually become the Child Victims Act. After talking to victims and studying case law he became convinced of the need for change, though his legislation died in committee or on the House floor during three consecutive legislative sessions.

"It was wrong to close the courthouse doors and deny them a day in court to even make an accusation about something that happened to them that shaped the course and trajectory of their lives. It was wrong," said Simon, a chief sponsor of the Child Victims Act who is currently Minnesota secretary of state.

"This is an area where there is a tremendous stigma attached where the victims," he added. "The survivors of childhood sexual abuse feel all sorts of feelings. Shame. Guilt."

Once it did pass, it didn't take long for victims to start coming forward. John Doe 1 filed a lawsuit just a few weeks later, alleging abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest in 2013. The case was eventually settled.

Landstrom sued the Amateur Athletic Union, the sports association that oversaw the Roseville Stingrays. Suits have also been filed against the Children's Theater Company and the Boy Scouts.

But the majority have been filed against the Catholic church — more than 400 alone against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and more than 100 against the Duluth diocese.

Clergy abuse claims eventually forced the Twin Cities archdiocese into bankruptcy. It has been selling off assets to help pay off claims likely to reach millions of dollars.

There has been significant upheaval in church leadership, including the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt. And the church has vowed to change.

In October 2014, Anderson held a joint news conference with church officials to announce a series of steps to bring more transparency to church handling of clergy abuse. Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens represented the church at that news conference.

"What we're doing is not about a publicity stunt. It's not about a slogan," Cozzens said. It's about a deep desire to bring healing."

Some, though, remain skeptical.

"I believe it's been changed for show, changed due to external pressure. And I believe quite frankly, to assume otherwise is to be extremely naive and reckless," said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Still, whatever the impact on institutions, the law has been good for victims, said Jeanne Ronayne, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

"They've borne the impact of what happened to them for decades," she said. "Their life took a course that was totally different trajectory because of what happened to them because. Someone needs to be held accountable."

Ronayne said she believes the bill could have gone further and eliminated any statute of limitations for past claims.

Steve Simon doesn't disagree with Ronayne but he said he didn't have the votes for a longer window and the three-year limit was a compromise with a high payoff.

"What we got in return for that, going forward, for all incident of childhood sexual abuse going forward, there will be no statute of limitations of any kind," he said.

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, was one of seven house members who opposed the bill in 2013. Three years later, he's still not a fan.

"We're looking at 30 years later. I can't remember what I did three years ago, more or less 30 years ago," he said. "I don't think this is good policy. It certainly was brought by the trial attorneys. They have made a lot of hay on this so far."

Lawyers representing victims will likely make millions in coming years. But for Landstrom and others, the Child Victims Act has brought the chance to face his alleged abuser in court and close a dark chapter in his life.

"This has been 43 years in the making," he said. "So I'm coming forward."