FARGO -- It is time for the North Dakota Legislature to open a new window, so victims of sexual abuse can seek civil action against their abusers. Many of the perpetrators were or are Catholic priests. Many of the victims were children. They were frightened, ashamed and traumatized. By the time they realized the seriousness of the offenses against them or had the courage to come forward, the statute of limitations had expired for them to take legal action.
So, the Legislature should open a new window of at least two years to allow all survivors to file suit against their alleged offenders. Experts say a lot of survivors in the state would like to take action now.
In just the last two years, 15 states revised their laws to open new windows or suspend their statutes of limitations. Minnesota opened a three-year window that ended in 2016. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that led to an astounding 850 new child abuse sex claims, including roughly 500 against Catholic clergy.
One of those who filed a claim was Frank Meuers of Plymouth, Minn. Meuers says he was abused by a priest when he was 16. “I was devastated and confused when it happened,” Meuers said. “The shame is smothering. You blame yourself.”
It wasn’t until Meuers turned 50 that he heard of people filing suit against the church and winning, but it was too late for him, until Minnesota opened its new window. “I wanted to hold them accountable. I wasn’t going to turn my back anymore,” he said. “I wept inside after the settlement. The hurt and guilt are still there.”
State Rep. Austen Schauer, R-West Fargo and Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, who impressively led the effort for tougher child abuse laws in North Dakota, said they will introduce legislation for a new two year window in the state. “We’re here to support the victims. Otherwise, why are we here?” Schauer said. “What a perpetrator does to a child causes lifelong damage. The victim should have any legal right to go after that perpetrator.”
Paul Hessinger, 68, formerly of Bismarck, is anxiously waiting for that window to open. Hessinger says when he was 12, he was sexually abused by a priest in a house in New Leipzig, N.D., while Hessinger’s friend was abused by a different priest in another room at that house. “I was freaked out,” Hessinger said. “These people are the right hand of God and they’re trying to grab my private parts. I was shamed and afraid to tell anybody.”
When Hessinger was older and independent, he wanted to take legal action against the church, but was told it was too late. The statute of limitations had expired. Now, he has new hope. “I’m still hurting and going to therapy,” Hessinger said. “A lawsuit would force the church to admit it was wrong. It would bring some justice. I owe it to other victims to come forward.”
There are many Paul Hessingers out there from North Dakota. They deserve justice.