Churches Off the Hook for Pedophilia; What’s Next for Survivors?
For now, the Catholic Church in South Dakota—along with schools, religious orders and other churches and institutions—appears to be off the hook for sexual abuse that Native Americans say they suffered while attending Church-run boarding schools during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. On February 18, the state legislature’s Senate Judiciary Committee listened to statements for and against Senate Bill 130, which was intended to give their day in court to Native victims who’d had their lawsuits against the Church terminated after legislative action in 2010.
The 45-minute hearing pitted the survivors, all non-lawyers, against Catholic and Lutheran church attorneys. The committee chairman then requested that the victims produce legal documents they hadn’t been forewarned they’d need to show. Finally, the members voted 5-2 to kill the measure, while noting that they opposed sexual abuse of children and “felt for” the victims.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Representative Troy Heinert, Rosebud Sioux, said he will talk to the survivors who came forward and to South Dakota’s House Judiciary Committee to see what options lie ahead. “I truly believe the survivors still have support. We’ve got to keep this issue moving, because a lot of people haven’t received justice.”
This is the second time the South Dakota legislature failed to remedy a 2010 bill that let institutions off the hook for abuse once the victim had turned 40; the first attempt was in 2012. The 2010 law, written by a Catholic Church lawyer, was passed after scores of middle-aged and elderly Native Americans sued the Church and individual perpetrators under the childhood-sexual-abuse statute of limitations in existence at the time.
“So many plaintiffs had come forward by 2010, the legislature was in panic mode,” said Heinert. “It passed a law that doesn’t allow for nuances among the cases.”
Going into the meeting, some victims’ supporters criticized the bill’s draft language and claimed the measure, if passed into law, could have been construed to mean the opposite of what was intended. Speaking on background, an official of the legislature’s research council, which wrote the bill, admitted to ICTMN that it could have been better crafted.
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