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Legislative committee kills bill that would have opened window for child sex abuse suits

PIERRE, S.D. -- A South Dakota legislative committee has killed a bill that could have broadened the window for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to pursue civil suits against entities, such as the Catholic church.

The House Judiciary committee on Monday, Feb. 11 voted 7-3 to defer House Bill 1269 to the 41st legislative day -- effectively killing it. The bill would have temporarily broadened the statute of limitations for survivors of child sex crimes to pursue civil actions against entities or organizations.

Under current law, victims over the age of 40 cannot pursue a civil suit for child sex crimes against an entity. That current statute has been in place since the Legislature passed it in 2010.

Since that bill passed, activists have pushed for bills similar to HB 1269 in an attempt to open up the window.

At the time of the 2010 bill's passing, plaintiffs were pursuing a case against the Catholic Diocese in Sioux Falls and the Blue Cloud Abbey for childhood sexual abuse that allegedly occurred at a Catholic boarding school for American Indian children in southeastern South Dakota in the 1950s and 1960s. The case was then thrown out.

Proponents said the bill would give survivors who were denied justice nine years ago an opportunity to seek it and would send a message to abuse survivors that the state supports them. Opponents say that statutes of limitations exist for a reason, and that allegations from decades ago are difficult to prove or deny -- especially when alleged perpetrators or eyewitnesses could now be dead.

Though HB 1269 has been pushed by this group of survivors, proponents say the bill would not just help this one group, but all survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Justin Bell, a lobbyist for the Catholic-affiliated St. Joseph's Indian School, told committee members on Monday that HB 1269 would open up the possibility of litigation that could "bog down" schools that are currently doing good work for American Indian children and communities. Committee chair and House Majority Whip Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, said that it's "not justice" to hold organizations and congregations liable today for crimes that were committed decades ago.

Rep. Tamara St. John, R-Sisseton, the prime sponsor of the bill, contended that HB 1269 "has nothing to do with politics," but "is as simple as someone wanting justice or acknowledgement of the most unthinkable of things."

"Every day, we stand in the Legislature and say the Pledge of Allegiance," St. John told committee members. "At the very end, it says, 'For liberty and justice for all.' It doesn't say, 'Except for if you're over 40 and have been abused in a Catholic boarding school.'"