FARGO — Sexual abuse of children is extremely difficult to prosecute. It often takes years — and even decades — before a person who was abused as a child is prepared to confront the abuser in a court of law.
That seldom happens, because of the difficulty of presenting evidence and because of the sense of shame that all too often keeps this horrible crime hidden in secrecy, allowing the abusers to remain untouched by the law.
Even when child sex abuse victims are willing to press charges as adults, the statute of limitations often has run out, leaving the victims unable to seek justice in criminal or civil court actions.
North Dakota just had a tragic reminder of the inability to prosecute abusers. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, following a lengthy investigation by his office, recently announced that two Catholic priests could have faced prosecution for sexually abusing children — but the statute of limitations had expired, so prosecution wasn’t possible.
The courthouse door was slammed shut to the victims of 53 clergy and other church members for whom investigators found probable cause to support charges. That was the outcome even though North Dakota lawmakers in 2019 extended the statute of limitations for child abuse victims from 10 to 21 years.
Fortunately, a bipartisan effort is under way in the North Dakota Legislature to further extend the statute of limitations, both civil and criminal, to give those who are abused as children more time to seek justice.
That’s appropriate, since the average age of adults who step forward to pursue a lawsuit or criminal charges is 52. Often the abusers are trusted authority figures, making it difficult to confront them.
Two bills, both with Rep. Austin Schauer, R-West Fargo, as primary sponsor, aim to address this horrible problem.
One bill would expand the “open window” that is available to file a civil lawsuit for childhood sexual abuse by two years. If passed, the bill would allow a claim seeking damages for childhood sexual abuse that otherwise was barred by an expired statute of limitations if the lawsuit is filed before Aug. 1, 2023, an extension of the current Aug. 1, 2021 deadline.
A second bill clarifies the awareness threshold for filing a civil claim for childhood sexual abuse. Under current law, a victim has up to 10 years to file a lawsuit from the time the victim “knew or reasonably should have known” that a civil claim could be brought. That would change to 10 years from the time an adult who was abused as a child is advised by a lawyer that he or she has a claim.
We urge lawmakers to approve both of these bills. The abuse of children is a crime that happens in the shadows and creates psychological and emotional scars that burden the victim throughout life.
Let’s be clear: These measures won’t open a floodgate of litigation or spurious claims, as some argue. These cases are difficult to prove, often turning on the credibility of the victim and the accused.
But they offer tangible hope to those whose lives have been forever altered that they have more time to seek justice for a horrible crime.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.