Minnesota: Victims: Extend Time to File Suit
By Stephen Scott
Pioneer Press [Minnesota]
Downloaded February 3, 2003
Shaken by the clergy abuse scandal of the past year, survivors of abuse in and outside the church have organized a new volunteer self-help group to persuade the state Legislature to change laws they say protect predators, not victims.
"It's almost like we survivors have a mandate," said Barbara Blaine, national founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and an organizer of the new organization. "Our pain is so incredible that we are mobilized to make a change."
Victims who have formed Survivors Network Minnesota want to extend or abolish the state's statute of limitations on sex crimes against children, which now bars young victims from filing a civil suit after they turn 24.
That statute requires a civil suit to be brought within six years of an alleged offense. Courts have said victims shouldn't be expected to recognize their injury while they are still minors, so the six-year statute, in effect, begins counting at age 18.
But even age 24 is too young, survivors say.
"It took me 46 years to break the silence," said Benita Kane Kirschbaum of Bloomington, who said she was abused by a priest in her teens and haunted by him until his death four years ago. "I was 58 years old by the time I broke the silence. Let's get rid of this damn statute of limitations."
At the first meeting of Survivors Network Minnesota, held last Saturday at a downtown St. Paul hotel, dozens of past victims broke their silence. Their stories told of the abuse they suffered, their anger and shame, and their healing and recovery.
Anonymity was promised to the 100 participants. But before a planned press conference, St. Paul attorney Jeffrey Anderson invited anyone to come forward who wanted to publicly share his or her story.
More than 50 stepped up, one by one, as if it were an altar call.
For the first time, Don introduced himself as a survivor. A former state champion wrestler, he had been rendered powerless by being sexually abused.
Vicki said a church youth pastor got her pregnant two decades ago.
Jack and Wayne and several others said they were abused by priests.
Lori was abused by her father the first six years of her life. "I want to turn this into something I'm proud of and not be a victim," she said.
Scott Trobec, a 41-year-old certified public accountant in St. Paul, was abused between ages 6 and 12 by a male family member.
"There were secrets I've hidden from myself and others for many years, and I wasn't able to face them until my 30s," he said.
"I really disconnected from myself. I didn't matter. I was all alone. I just wanted to die," Trobec said. "I am working hard on my recovery. I don't feel like dying anymore. I really want to live, and I want to live well."
The victim-survivors say they will tell their stories now because they can. It's when they get their voices back, they say, that the statute of limitations should start running, not at age 18.
Survivors Network Minnesota will expand its focus beyond that of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, founded by Blaine to help those abused by Catholic clergy. The new network (www.survivorsnetworkmn.org) will offer support for victims of all sex crimes against children.
One of its first goals is to pressure the Legislature through personal contact and grass-roots organizing to extend, or ultimately abolish, the civil statute of limitations on sex offenses against minors.
By comparison, state law requires criminal charges to be brought within nine years of the offense, or up to three years after an offense is first reported to authorities - allowing victims to file charges long after the offenses were committed.
The group hasn't found a lawmaker to sponsor a bill, but it hopes to hold up California and Connecticut laws as models.
California recently enacted a temporary suspension of its statute of limitations, so that during a one-year window, any case may be brought to court, no matter when it occurred. In Connecticut, the statute of limitations is 30 years from the age of majority, giving a victim until age 48 to file suit.
Minnesota victim-survivors also want clergy to be more stringently accountable for reporting suspected abuse.
Church bodies in Minnesota typically have opposed extending statutes of limitations.
"We don't want to just flat-out preclude any legislation before we see what is actually proposed," said the Rev. Karen Bockelman of Duluth, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Religious Council.
"But we do have some concerns about extending the civil statute of limitations. Those concerns would include the whole basic reason for a statute of limitations: that it tries to ensure that claims are brought while they can be fairly decided by the courts.
"Very old claims present a problem in terms of fair decisions."
The Minnesota Religious Council serves as a legal and legislative representative of various Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.
But victim-survivors believe they have a message more powerful than lobbying interests.
"This is your chance to become one of the most powerful people in Minnesota," former Rep. John Tuma of Northfield said at last Saturday's organizing meeting. "They're scared of you. They don't want to see you up there.
"You have the right message."
Tuma last year co-authored an unsuccessful bill to extend the civil statute of limitations.
When victim-survivors go to the Legislature this session, they will take teddy bears with them. The stuffed animals are to be symbols of innocence lost.
"If you're courageous enough to go to the Capitol, you're courageous enough to bring a teddy bear," Tuma said. "It will leave a message. They'll be talking about them."
Stephen Scott may be reached at (651) 228-5526 or sscott@pioneer press.com.
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