FARGO — Shame on the North Dakota House of Representatives for defeating three bills that would have helped victims of child sexual abuse. The legislators disgracefully voted to protect abusers, rather than protect victims.
The bills would have would have opened a two-year window for victims to file a lawsuit against an abuser, and extend the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases from three to 10 years. About 24 states have passed similar legislation, including the conservative states of Montana, Alabama, Texas and Tennessee. However, North Dakota legislators decided to ignore the victims.
The vote followed some emotional and chilling testimony from survivors. One of them is Paul Hessinger, 69, formerly of Bismarck, who said he was sexually abused by two priests when he was 16.
“My pain and injustice have not gone away in 53 years … I fell into drugs and alcohol for over 15 years, and bouts of depression and deep anxiety,” Hessinger said. “I had no consciousness of lawsuits or suing anyone at that age…I thought no one would believe me anyway, as I was a kid and they were adults. I tried to report it … No one really listened or acted on my behalf.”
Leslie Brunette, from West Fargo, was abused from age 2 to 12 by a relative.
“It is not acceptable to prescribe an expiration date for any of our stories,” Brunette said. “Please give the untold stories of childhood sexual abuse a voice. It is never too late to hold perpetrators accountable.”
“Why should sexual predators be protected by the passage of time, but victims suffer in perpetuity?” said Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, and a child sexual abuse survivor. “I never publicly spoke about my abuse until I was in my mid-40s. The shame and fear and embarrassment was just too much.”
Robb defined the problem the legislators turned their backs on. These child victims are usually frightened, ashamed and traumatized for life. By the time they realize the seriousness of the offenses against them or have the courage to come forward, the statute of limitations has expired to take legal action. The average age of disclosure is 52.
Several lawmakers used a bogus argument as an excuse to vote against the bills. Namely, that private entities would be treated differently than public entities. They wouldn’t. That was a smokescreen.
Also, these bills were not directed against the Catholic Church, but all abusers who have shattered the lives of children without facing consequences. They’re often relatives, “friends,” teachers, medical workers, etc. In fact, 90% of the victims know their perpetrators.
Some opponents feared this would open the door to baseless lawsuits. Actually, less than 2% of claims are false. Any alleged victim would still have to prove his or her case.
We know there are dozens of child sexual abuse victims in North Dakota who are hurting and have been denied justice. This legislation would have given hope and support to them. By defeating these bills, the legislators reprehensibly killed that hope, and slammed the door in the faces of victims.
Shaw is a former WDAY TV reporter and former KVRR TV news director. Email firstname.lastname@example.org