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Sex abuse victims push for more time to file lawsuits
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Susan Fuchs-Hoeschen is preparing to sue the St. Cloud Diocese over sexual abuse she said she suffered as a child, at the hands of a St. Cloud priest. But she may not be able to move forward with it unless the Legislature extends the time limit for filing such suits. (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
State lawmakers this session will again be asked to extend the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases. During last year's session, lawmakers were poised to adopt an extension but it didn't satisfy some abuse victims. But now the victims are heading back to the Legislature to push, once again, for more time to file civil lawsuits over sexual abuse.

St. Paul, Minn. — Susan Fuchs-Hoeschen says she was molested by a St. Cloud priest when she was 10. Although she confronted the priest through church channels in 1992, she never filed a claim against the diocese. Now at age 40, 30 years after the alleged abuse, she's been meeting with her attorney in preparation to file a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese in St. Cloud.

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Image 30-year limit won't pass

"I feel that I am ready to go forward in my suit against the diocese, hopefully to open the doors for others who've been harmed. I think the filing of the suit and the public declaration that follows filing a suit is the other piece I'm looking for," Fuchs-Hoeschen said.

But her case may not get very far because she waited too long to take legal action. Under current Minnesota law, people who claim to be the victims of sexual abuse as a child can only file civil suits over the matter until they reach age 24, six years after they turn 18 -- the age of majority. Last year's bill would have extended the statute of limitations to 14 years, so victims would have until age 32 to file suit.

Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, who sponsored the statute of limitations measure in the Senate, says he thought it was a good bill.

"I think it would have passed by a fairly substantial margin. And then we would have had it at 14 years instead of six, which seems to me like a pretty good gain. But they weren't willing to do that," Kubly said.

"They" are people who are victims of clergy sexual abuse. The survivors originally wanted the Legislature to remove the time limit for filing such cases entirely. They settled for a bill that would have allowed suits until 30 years beyond the age of majority, but that bill was defeated.

It is my belief that if they insist on the 30 years, they'll end up with nothing. Because I don't believe there's the votes in the House or the Senate to put together a 30-year limit.
- State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg

Opponents, such as the Minnesota Schools Boards Association, say 30 years is too long. Grace Schwab, a lobbyist for the association, says allowing so much time to file lawsuits makes it more difficult to mount a defense, and could end up hurting students.

"Our problem comes if that is unlimited -- 20, 30, 40, 50 years later -- finding either the individuals who were employed at the school at that time, or even who provided the insurance for covering the school districts against these kinds of cases," Schwab said. "And if we can't come up with those and an adequate defense, it then comes out of today's dollars that we've got in our schools for kids." But Bob Swiderski of the Survivors Network says victims face the same obstacles.

"If the victim can't prove it, then the institution doesn't have anything to worry about. The institution is saying, 'We can't protect ourselves because people may have died or we have lost records.' Well then, that victim doesn't have anything they can use in court. So that's a two-way street," Swiderski said.

Swiderski still wants the 30-year statute of limitations, but it may once again be a tough sell at the Capitol

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, who chairs the House Civil Law Committee, says she plans to introduce a bill with the 14-year time frame. Holberg says that proposal has a more realistic chance of passing.

"It is my belief that if they insist on the 30 years, they'll end up with nothing. Because I don't believe that there's the votes in the House or the Senate to put together a 30-year limit," Holberg said.

That's bad news for alleged victim Susan Fuchs-Hoeschen and her potential legal action. She says, however, that even if a bill that doesn't help her -- but accomodates additional victims -- becomes law, she'd be pleased, because more people could find some satisfaction in Minnesota's civil courts.

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