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North Dakota legislators heard emotional testimony from survivors about horrific sexual abuse while they were children.  The testimony is related to several bills before the Legislature that would expand the present statute of limitations allowing survivors to seek justice in court.

The bipartisan legislation, HB 1382, would provide a two-year window to suspend the statute of limitations to file claims against alleged abusers or institutions that protected them.

North Dakota was considered mission territory for the Catholic Church at the turn of the last century and was the home to Native American reservations.  Countless Native American children were abused by missionaries.   (As sovereign nations, Native Americans may hold legal proceedings in their own tribal courts.)

Under the legislation, abuse victims could file claims for two years after after the bill’s enactment date of Aug. 1, regardless of how long ago the incident is alleged to have happened.

Timothy Lennon, the president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told the panel that child victims often don’t recover the traumatic memories of abuse until well into adulthood.

The memories, he said, can be “buried for decades.”

Paul Hessinger, a former North Dakota resident now living in San Francisco, told the panel he was abused by a priest as a child and urged lawmakers to endorse the legislation that would temporarily allow claims that had been previously barred by the statute of limitations.

Said Hessinger: “Why do abusers get a free pass when statute of limitations run out?”

In 2019, the South Dakota Legislature was unsuccessful in passing a similar statute of limitations reform bill.  As part of that effort, Native Sun News published a story about a family of survivors:

“The Charbonneau sisters were from North Dakota when they were sent nearly six-hundred miles to St. Paul’s Indian Mission to attend boarding school. Their parents had believed the American educational system would be the best thing for their nine daughters. Beginning in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, the parents had sent their children to the boarding school not knowing that they were being abused at the hands of church officials and boarding school staff.

None of the nine sisters had spoken of the traumatic experiences they had while attending the boarding school. The abuse has left emotional, mental and spiritual scars for five decades before the group had finally opened up about their abuse. This was after losing their parents. Explaining the abuses in graphic nature to one another began the path of healing and exposure for those responsible. Over the last few years, the nine sisters have dealt with the trauma in their own way.

In 2018, Michelle Echols (cousin to the nine sisters) had created the advocacy group 9 Little Girls with the sisters and one of their daughters, Jencie Dahlen. The group had been created to bring awareness and to pursue justice and healing.”

Native Americans and all North Dakotans deserve justice, most especially those who were abused as children.  As a sexual abuse advocate and attorney, I urge the North Dakota Legislature to pass this legislation and let the healing begin.


The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis




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