Sex-abuse reporting bill faces opposition

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Churches, schools and local governments are lining up against a proposal to extend the amount of time alleged victims of sexual abuse have to file a lawsuit.

So strong is the lobbying campaign against the bill that advocate Dale Scheffler predicts it won't even get to a vote.

"I don't know that much about the legislative process, but I am now afraid there are people working very hard to make sure this issue never comes up," said Scheffler, 34, a construction worker from Farmington.

In 1996, Scheffler won $1.1 million in awards from a Hennepin County jury for abuse by his parish priest. The abuse took place in 1981 when Scheffler was 14, and the jury awarded damages for recklessness and willful indifference by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.


But a year later, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said Scheffler had waited too long to sue and threw out the awards. After winning on that technicality, the archdiocese tried unsuccessfully to claim legal fees from Scheffler.

House Minority Leader Tom Pugh of South St. Paul and Rep. John Tuma of Northfield want to extend the period for childhood sex abuse victims like Scheffler to seek damages.

Tuma's legislation was denied a committee hearing this year, and Pugh's plan to bring the measure up as an amendment on the House floor, perhaps Monday, is likely to meet a similar fate because of another technicality.

Opponents say the amendment is not relevant to the legislation Pugh hopes to add it to, a Tuma-sponsored bill to change criminal sentences for sex offenders. The bill addresses criminal penalties; the amendment civil penalties.

Moreover, lobbyist Daniel Connolly said, churches, schools and other institutions would have a hard time rebutting late-arising allegations because "the general view is that somebody wouldn't say that if it wasn't true." And civil plaintiffs must prove their case only by a preponderance of evidence, he said, a much lower standard than in criminal trials.

Under a 1989 law, victims of childhood sexual abuse were given six years to file suit against perpetrators from the time they "knew or had reason to know" they had been injured by the abuse. The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, interpreted that as six years after the victims turn 18.

Trial lawyers, who support the bill, say that ruling has virtually ended sex abuse suits against clergy and churches in Minnesota.

Pugh said the Legislature should reaffirm its intention in 1989 to allow childhood sex abuse suits for six years after a victim becomes aware of the injury, no matter when that occurs.


But he also said the issue is so controversial it probably should be heard in committees, if not this year then next. "I don't see it as a battle with the church," Pugh said. "It's more about giving these victims a fair shake."

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