Are Pedophiles Getting Free Pass in South Dakota?
A bill in the South Dakota legislature that appears intended to give several dozen Native American childhood-sexual-abuse plaintiffs their day in court may do just the opposite. According to several legislators, Senate Bill 130 is supposed to fix problems caused by a 2010 law that retroactively blocked the Native lawsuits against the Catholic Church, which ran the boarding schools where the abuse allegedly took place.
However, others claim the new proposal makes matters worse by reinstating the statute of limitations in effect “on the date the abuse occurred,” according to the bill’s language. For the plaintiffs in question, that was the mid-20th century, when the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse shut the courthouse door three years after the abuse, or one year after the victim turned 18—a birthday that’s long past for them.
SB 130’s final sentence slams the door and locks it, according to attorney Michael Shubeck, of the Law Offices of Gregory Yates, in Rapid City; he and Yates have Native clients whose cases were terminated under the 2010 law. Shubeck noted that in a kind of circular logic, this part of the bill says that if a legislative action (like the 2010 law) killed valid cases, SB 130 would revive them.
But, said Shubeck, the short mid-20th-century statute of limitations that SB 130 puts into play means the lawsuits can never be valid. End of story.
Dr. Barbara Charbonneau-Dahlen read SB 130’s draft language and was also concerned. Charbonneau-Dahlen is Chippewa and filed a suit alleging abuse at St. Paul’s Indian Mission School, in Marty, South Dakota. She e-mailed the South Dakota Legislative Research Council, which had written the bill, saying, “If SB 130 stays as is, we would go back to the 1960 rule, and we would again be denied our day in court.”
Charbonneau-Dahlen contends the bill should be rewritten to make the applicable statute of limitations the one in effect when a lawsuit was filed. For her and other Native plaintiffs, that would be the longer time span South Dakota legislated in 1996, since all their suits were filed after that date. A nursing PhD and scholar, Charbonneau-Dahlen called the 1960s understanding of the psychology of childhood sexual abuse, and the shorter time frame that accompanied it, “antiquated.”
A state official who was close to the situation but authorized to speak only on background, insisted that the draft version of SB 130 did not reinstate the restrictive 1960s statute of limitations, though he said the bill could have been better written. He added that it might be kinder to advise the plaintiffs to forget about their lawsuits.
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