On Wednesday, February 10, the House Judiciary Committee passed all bills that failed, and on Friday, February 12, the bills were not passed on House floor.
Opponents said they feared the legislation would open private organizations to a potentially overwhelming barrage of decades of abuse claims, but proponents say survivors have limited options to bring justice to the table.
“These bills were about giving hope to victims of child abuse. Hope for a life in Hell, “Bills main sponsor Rep. Austen Schauer, R-West Fargo, said ahead of Friday’s vote. “Despite today’s votes, we want childhood sexual abuse survivors to know that we will always fight for them and for justice.”
One of Schauer’s bills, HB 1392, would create a two-year window for victims of sexual abuse to file a lawsuit against an abuser or an organization for allegations that have expired.
HB 1387 would extend the limitation period to file a criminal complaint for sexual abuse of a minor from three to ten years.
Under current North Dakota law, a child sexual abuse victim must file a civil action within 10 years of knowing the opportunity exists. A third bill, HB 1384, would open the 10 year window when a North Dakota licensed attorney notified a victim that there was a potential claim.
Ecclesiastical abuse survivor Ted Becker (bottom right) testified before the North Dakota House Judiciary Committee on February 3.
R-Grand Forks Rep. Steve Vetter noted that the bills did not include public entities and focused on lawsuits against private institutions, and said he was concerned about exposing organizations to a wave of lawsuits.
“If you create a window for old claims, all claims come at once and force the institutions to liquidate,” said Vetter on the floor of the house. “It will be one,” he said, she said, “and the defendant is forced to settle down rather than face the embarrassment in the community (or go bankrupt).”
In an opposition statement at a committee hearing, State Association of Nonpublic Schools attorney and lobbyist Shane Goettle said the bills wrongly focused on private organizations that already impose a 10-year limit on filing a civil lawsuit have a plaintiff. According to the law, action against the state must begin within three years of an alleged crime.
“HB 1382 would revive claims that were long off-limits to churches and closed schools over time, but not public schools, juvenile detention centers and other government agencies,” Goettle said.
Cory Silverman, an attorney who spoke on behalf of the American Tort Reform Association, said he was against opening a window for civil lawsuits to be reanimated for survivors because such legislation would “lead to an increase in decades of allegations” made by private organizations find it difficult to defend in court.
The Catholic Church does not witness every bill it supports or opposes, said Christopher Dodson, general counsel of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, adding that the Church agrees with Goethe’s testimony.
Schauer said he had trouble sleeping the night after the House Judiciary Committee rated his bills as “fail”.
“The argument was primarily that private schools would be discriminated against if these laws were passed,” said Schauer. “But that’s a red herring. These bills don’t discriminate against private schools.”
According to an email from Christopher Joseph, legal advisor to the North Dakota Legislative Council, public institutions are already following specific laws and providing monetary damages for civil claims. They are subject to a higher standard of transparency than private organizations.
About 2% of child sexual abuse cases ever go before a jury, said Kathleen Murray, a Wells County attorney who testified in support of the bills.
“In my 20 years of law enforcement, I’ve never had a child who gave false information,” said Murray.
Since 2002, no state has ever tried a false information case, said Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, a nonprofit that focuses on protecting children from abuse and neglect.
In a report, Robb said that “there are tons of hidden child robbers in North Dakota, hunting one child at a time because of the statute of limitations that allows this.”
“Historically, a wall of ignorance and secrecy has been erected around child sexual abuse, which has been reinforced by short SOLs (statutes of limitations) that kept victims out of the legal system,” she wrote.