Child Sexual Abuse: Victims Need Adequate Time to Bring Damage Suits

St. Paul Pioneer Press [St. Paul MN]
Downloaded March 26, 2003


Minnesota lawmakers are wrestling with a particularly vexing limitations issue again this session. It concerns time limits on lawsuits brought by people who were sexually abused as children. Generally, a suit for damages must be brought within six years of the harmful event. As interpreted by Minnesota courts, state law gives victims of childhood sex abuse until age 24 to file such a suit.

Many believe that limit is too short - and indeed that judges mistakenly narrowed new rules lawmakers enacted in 1989. The persuasive argument is that victims of childhood abuse often do not understand until well into adulthood exactly what happened to them, and what damage it did. But that shouldn't permit those who hurt children or allowed them to be hurt to escape the obligation to pay damages. (There is no practical limit on criminal charges against abusers of children.)

A new bill working its way through the Legislature would allow damage suits in cases of child abuse at least until the victim reaches age 48. The question is whether that 30-year window is too broad, and would, at least in some cases, make it impossible for courts to do justice to all sides.

Opponents of this legislation - basically, church groups, school boards and the like - make no objection to very spacious limitations where suit is brought against an abuser or an organization that failed to protect children despite "actual knowledge" of the abuse. Maddeningly, that would describe many of the most notorious abuse scandals that have shocked the nation in recent years.

Where opponents of the new bill have concerns is in cases where an organization is accused of simple "negligence" in connection with abuse. Simply put, this means that, considering all the circumstances, someone in authority "should have known" what was going on.

Negligence is an old and important standard in the law. But finding the truth about whether someone "should have known" something requires extensive information about all the surrounding circumstances. Adequate evidence may be impossible to come by concerning events two or three decades old.

Could your church or your company defend itself against an accusation that somebody in charge "should have known" something 30 years ago? Are the people involved still living, their whereabouts known? Do they recall details of specific events from 1973?

A compromise seems possible and desirable on this point. Sex abuse victims should face no practical limit on bringing suit when organizations actually knew of their suffering and did nothing.

But organizations should not be required indefinitely to defend themselves against the more complex and subjective charge of negligence.


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