Over 800 and counting. That’s the rough number of lawsuits or notices of claims filed by St. Paul lawyer Jeff Anderson’s firm on behalf of alleged survivors of childhood sexual abuse since the state’s Child Victim Act went into effect May 25, 2013.
“I believe it might reach up to 900 by the time it’s over,” said Anderson, referring to the fact that the law will expire next Wednesday.
Throw in at least 62 similar suits generated by lawyer Patrick Noaker, who once worked with Anderson, and it appears close to 1,000 claims might be filed by just two law firms in the state before next week’s deadline.
If the figure raises eyebrows, Anderson says there probably should have been many more.
“I’ve been doing this for 33 years, and for many of those years, these survivors, child abuse victims and others, have been shut out, their cases thrown out because of statutes of limitations,” said Anderson. His firm has posted ads about the law in virtually every newspaper in the state, Facebook and other media venues since the first week the law went into effect. (“We don’t call it advertising. We call it outreach,” Anderson told me.)
“We have fielded thousands of calls over the years from people denied access,” Anderson added. “What this law has done is finally given them a voice and to have the courthouse doors opened to them.”
The clergy sex abuse scandals of recent decades, both here and elsewhere, undoubtedly had a major impact on the law’s passage three years ago.The law established a three-year window for adults sexually abused as children to file civil claims. Previous statutes of limitations return once the window closes May 25.
If a victim is abused now before age 18, actions for damages commence at any time, according to a fact sheet provided by the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Abuse (CASA). Individuals younger than 24 at the time the child victim law went into effect have no statute of limitations to bring their case forward. However, individuals older than 24 at the time the law became effective can no longer bring a claim after May 25 of this year. The deadline for those seeking claims against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis expired Aug. 3 of last year.
“We have received many calls, some from people who moved out of state and just learned about the law, and we do refer them to lawyers or others and provide other information,” said Caroline Palmer, CASA’s legal affairs director.
It is hardly a surprise that over half of the legal proceedings and cases filed by Anderson’s firm so far involve the Catholic Church. He has made a lucrative career representing victims of clergy abuse.
The dioceses of Duluth and Minneapolis and St. Paul filed for bankruptcy protection last year as a result of court judgments and costly settlements both before and after the child victim law was passed. Every diocese in the state and an estimated 100 parishes have reportedly been named as defendants in claims filed in the past three years. There are also complaints lodged against St. John’s Abbey, the Crosiers and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
“The impact has been unavoidably huge,” Charles Reid, a University of St. Thomas professor and expert on Catholicism and canon law, said about the toll of such litigation on archdiocese finances. There have been significant cuts in staff and services, he added.
“No question. The victims have justice on their side,” he added. “They have been abused and mistreated twice — first by the priest, and then the church who did not believe them. But everyone has finite resources.”
The remainder of the Anderson firm’s cases involve several Lutheran churches, other denominations, the Boy Scouts, public and private schools (including Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault), summer camps, youth organizations, group homes and some individuals. Notices have also been filed against Mesabi Academy, a private juvenile treatment and correctional facility in Buhl, Minn., that recently made headlines following accusations of sexual abuse and poor treatment. The academy has denied any wrongdoing.
Anderson’s firm has also filed eight lawsuits against Minneapolis-based Children’s Theatre Company and its founder, John Clark Donahue, among others. The claimants are nine adults who claim they were abused as minors in the 1970s and 1980s.
In conjunction with a handful of other attorneys, Noaker’s firm has filed claims against the Boy Scouts of America on behalf of at least six Twin Cities area men.
Like Anderson, Noaker is aware of criticisms that the law essentially has given money-hungry lawyers an opportunity to shake down churches and other institutions for alleged incidents that took place decades ago.
Like Anderson, he dismisses such perceptions.
The law forces “the people and institutions who are responsible for injuries related to sexual abuse to bear the responsibility for helping those they injured,” Noaker stated in an email.
“We now know a lot more about the ways that pedophiles manipulate institutional settings in order to gain access to kids,” he added. “With this information, institutions know more and can better fashion child protection measures, and kids are safer.”
Anderson also notes that civil litigation has forced dioceses to release the names of more than 200 credibly accused priests and others, some who still live in the state and were not previously known.
“This law has performed a stunning public service, in my opinion,” said Anderson, who is still recovering from what he described as a “widowmaker” heart attack in February. “As far as the criticisms, I’ve been hearing that since I filed my first lawsuit for a child victim in 1983. I don’t pay them any mind. My life speaks for itself.”
Jared Scheierl hopes filing a civil claim before the deadline will give him the chance one day to face the man he believes abducted and sexually abused him in Cold Spring, Minn., in 1989 when he was 12. That man, Daniel James Heinrich, is considered by law enforcement authorities to be a “person of interest” in the abduction of Jacob Wetterling. Heinrich is facing trial this summer on federal child pornography charges. Scheierl’s assault took place nine months before Wetterling, then 11, was grabbed at gunpoint near his St. Joseph, Minn., home. Wetterling’s fate remains unknown.
Last year, Scheierl learned for the first time his alleged assailant’s identity when FBI agents informed him that Heinrich’s DNA was found on clothing he wore the day of the assault. But they also informed him that the criminal statute of limitations for charging Heinrich with the assault had expired. Scheierl decided to proceed civilly after watching attorney Doug Kelley comment on the Heinrich case on TV two weeks ago.
“I believe the law has had a (good) effect and brought honor and respect to the complaints of victims who for a long time had been neglected,” Kelley said.
Although the lawsuit filed by Kelley on his behalf asks for $50,000 in damages for false imprisonment and sexual battery, “it’s not about the money at all,” Scheierl told me Tuesday by phone. “It’s about the principle of the matter, the chance to perhaps ask (Heinrich) questions (in a deposition). This man may be responsible for other victims, and this might provide answers for those who don’t have conclusive evidence like I do.”
He agrees with Anderson that the number of filed lawsuits or claims does not nearly reflect the actual number of childhood sexual abuse survivors in the state.
“I know a great many out there, men ranging from 60 to 30 years of age,” he said. “Many are not even in a place yet to even fully address what happened to them. There’s excessive use of drugs and alcohol to cope with it. For me, I know it’s a lengthy process, but I’m willing to go ahead and be patient and hope I get that chance to sit across the table from him.”
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800 claims and counting as child sex-abuse law nears expiration
May 18, 2016