by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
The statute of limitations expired on Cambridge resident Joel Juers, who at age 47, was trying to gain justice against an alleged sex abuser.
Last November, former Faribault Shattuck-St. Mary’s teacher Joseph Machlitt was arrested and charged with sexually abusing Juers when Juers was 14, 33 years ago. Just weeks ago, those criminal charges were dropped because of the statute of limitations.
Juers is now speaking publicly about the abuse and is strongly in support of the Minnesota Child Victims Act, legislation that would allow anyone who was sexually abused as a child to bring a civil lawsuit at any time in the future against his or her abuser or against the institution facilitating the abuse.
Under current law, if an individual was offended as a child and becomes 18, that individual has until age 24 to bring suit. The new legislation encourages victims of child sex abuse to come forward, potentially identifying abusers who have never been caught and may still be abusing children.
“This legislation will protect children, empower survivors and help stop child abuse from happening in the future,” Juers said.
Legislation has passed its votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee and in the House Civil Law Committee and is expected to be soon heard on the floors of the House and Senate. Author of the Senate bill 534, Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the bill procedurally is at the floor of the Senate.
Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, is the House author of House File 681. The bill is also on the House floor and ready to be heard, Rep. Simon said.
Simon carried a different version of the legislation six years ago. He said he has gotten to know some of the survivors of child sexual abuse.
“The bottom line is, under current Minnesota law, the courthouse doors have been shut in the face of survivors at age 24,” Simon said. He added that many of these victims don’t connect the dots to what happened to them until later in life.
The House Civil Law Committee amended the bill in hopes to seek a compromise with opponents.
Chief opponents are the Minnesota Religious Council and the Minnesota School Boards Association. Both have expressed concern about the institution being opened for liability in perpetuity. Major concern of the opposition is the financial impact on defendants associated with the crime, but who didn’t commit it, like schools, counties or cities. Those opposed to the change contend costly settlements could ultimately cost taxpayers.
The House version of the bill gives victims an opportunity to bring cases after the statute of limitations during a three-year window, while repealing the statute of limitations for all future incidents. The Senate version has no window; it is unlimited.
Simon said through negotiations, a number of significant concessions have been made to the institutions opposing the House bill.
“I listened, heard and met numerous times with stakeholders,” he said.
Nearly a dozen victim advocate organizations, including the Minnesota Alliance on Crime and the National Child Protection Training Center, support the Minnesota Child Victims Act. Other supporters of the legislation include numerous county attorneys and sheriffs across Minnesota. Kathleen Blatz, past chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, also supports this legislation.
“The question for those opposing this bill is, whom are they protecting,” Juers said. He said helping victims seek justice and protecting children from sexual abuse is not a partisan issue, it is a moral issue “that should unite us all.”
Juers, Rep. Simon and Sen. Latz believe if the legislation is passed into law, Gov. Mark Dayton will sign it.
If the bill becomes law, Juers has the chance to bring his allegations forward. He said he is uncertain as to how he would proceed.
“I am Christian and have to weigh the questions of justice, vengeance and grace,” he said.
“I have to live with myself. Do I forgive? Or, do I exact some form of vengeance myself? Do I cause someone else to suffer? Do I cause this man, who is now 63, to suffer monetarily or publicly?”
At the time of the alleged abuse of Juers, Machlitt was a faculty member at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, teaching art and photography. Juers said two incidents of abuse occurred.
Juers said he needs more time to decide and points out that is why the legislation is needed. Many victims need more time than what is restricted now by the statute of limitations, he said. A statute of limitations for setting time constraints for sex abuse victims to come forward are truly arbitrary, Juers contended.
“This is a special type of crime and we all heal at different rates. We are willing to tell our stories but at different times.”
Juers said that laws should reflect societal values, rather than laws dictating societal values.
“There’s something backwards there,” he said.
“I’ve personally seen the consequences of the arbitrary deadline in current law,” Juers said. “This new legislation would have helped me. I don’t want to see others denied justice the way I was. That’s why I support the Minnesota Child Victims Act.”
Juers is employed by the Elim Home & Rehabilitation Center in Princeton, and he is a full-time nursing student at Bethel University in St. Paul.
Sen. Latz said victims of child sexual abuse have suffered a unique injury. It justifies unique treatment in terms of the statute of limitations, he said. The abuse has left “deep, emotional scars” and the statute of limitations closes down a person’s ability to recognize the harm, sometimes recall the harm, to admit it happened and to talk about it with family and the public, Latz said.
The ability to start a lawsuit should be protected, Latz said, to hold the individuals or institutions accountable. He called this crime “horrendous” and a crime that is life changing and devastating for the victim.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org