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Bill aims to extend time for abuse victims to file claims

February 3, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Several adult victims of child sexual abuse appealed to lawmakers in emotional testimony Wednesday to back legislation that would give survivors more time to sue their alleged perpetrators for crimes that could date back decades.

The bipartisan legislation, HB 1382, would provide a two-year window to suspend the statute of limitations to file claims against alleged abusers or institutions that protected them.

“I appeal to you to bring justice to victims of child abuse in North Dakota,” West Fargo Republican Rep. Austen Schauer, the bill’s sponsor, told the House Judiciary Committee, which took no immediate action.

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Schauer said passing the legislation would send a message to child abusers that “your time of hiding has ended.”

Under the legislation, abuse victims could file claims for two years after after the bill’s enactment date of Aug. 1, regardless of how long ago the incident is alleged to have happened.

Timothy Lennon, the president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told the panel that child victims often don’t recover the traumatic memories of abuse until well into adulthood.

The memories, he said, can be “buried for decades.”

Paul Hessinger, a former North Dakota resident now living in San Francisco, told the panel he was abused by a priest as a child and urged lawmakers to endorse the legislation that would temporarily allow claims that had been previously barred by the statute of limitations.

Said Hessinger: “Why do abusers get a free pass when statute of limitations run out?”

Kathryn Robb, executive director of Philadelphia-based CHILD USAdvocacy, said 24 states have passed legislation that either extends or suspends such statutes of limitations.

“It’s not a novel concept,” Robb said of North Dakota’s proposed legislation. “The national trend is clear.”

Cary Silverman, an attorney representing the American Tort Reform Association, opposed the bill, saying statutes of limitations “serve a critical function.”

Silverman said his group, which represents businesses, municipalities and associations, is concerned the bill “eliminates the statute of limitations to no time at all.”

Witnesses memories may no longer be fresh, records may be lost, the alleged abuser may be dead and the institution or business tied to the perpetrator could have changed hands, he said.

Lawmakers in neighboring Minnesota in 2013 opened a three-year window for sexual abuse cases in which the statute of limitations had run out. Jeff Anderson, an attorney who for years has specialized in such litigation, said his firm filed claims from more than 900 abuse survivors in that period, mostly from people who alleged abuse at the hands of clergy, and won settlements of more than $300 million. Five of Minnesota’s six Catholic dioceses declared bankruptcy in the ensuing years.

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Anderson said his firm “has been getting calls for a long time” from North Dakota residents who alleged abuse.

“North Dakota has been a place where we could not seek relief for survivors,” Anderson said. If the law changes, he said, “We’ll be there.”

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Associated Press writer Doug Glass contributed from Minneapolis.