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Ending time limits for child sex abuse lawsuits gets support from Missouri lawmakers

Ending time limits for child sex abuse lawsuits gets support from Missouri lawmakers

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JEFFERSON CITY — For two decades, Bryan Bacon kept the memories of his abuse locked away.

In 1985, Bacon was sexually assaulted at knifepoint by an assistant principal at St. John Vianney High School in Kirkwood. He repressed the traumatic memory for years, he said, but it resurfaced in 2005 when he was 35.

Bacon told his story to the House Children and Families Committee in a hearing Tuesday. He was there to support a proposal that would remove the statute of limitations for filing civil lawsuits in cases of childhood sexual abuse. Currently, the law gives survivors of abuse 10 years to file civil claims.

The proposal comes after Missouri removed the statute of limitations for criminal cases in 2018.

Multiple advocates said Tuesday that they supported removing the time limit for civil cases as well.

Dianna Fine works as a licensed professional counselor in St. Louis County and spoke on behalf of the National Council of Jewish Women in St. Louis. In her 24 years in the profession, she said she’s heard numerous stories of sexual abuse. She said adult survivors are often plagued by depression, anxiety and PTSD.

“A client of mine in her 70s told me her story for the very first time, having carried the secret in shame for 50 years,” Fine said. “Even then she wept as if it had just happened.”

Many survivors will wait days, months or years to disclose their abuse, said Julie Donelon, director of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault. Some never do, and the reasons for this are complex.

Often, they feel guilty and blame themselves for the abuse or are frightened that nobody will believe them, she said. They also risk alienation by talking.

“They’re often protecting their families and the institutions where the abuse occurred,” Donelon said.

Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron, vice chair of the committee, said lawmakers should also consider making priests mandated reporters of sexual abuse.

“I believe that bill will be coming forward in this committee,” Neely said, though he did not specify when.

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Sheila Solon, R-St. Joseph, who sponsored the bill, said people who are abused as children will sometimes repress their memories.

“Sometimes in order to survive, they had to forget,” Solon said. “I believe personally, that the mind and soul of children are protected by God for their survival.”

Most people who were sexually abused as children do remember at least part of what happened to them, although they may not talk about it or fully understand it, according to the American Psychological Association. Clinicians and researchers do agree that early memories of abuse can be forgotten, but that recovering them is rare.

In Bacon’s case, he was unable to file a criminal complaint against his alleged perpetrator, Brother William Mueller. But despite the statute of limitations, Missouri courts did allow a civil lawsuit to proceed because of the timing of his repressed memory’s return.

He settled with the Marianist Province of the United States, the religious order which runs Vianney High School, in 2007 and with Mueller in 2010.

No one spoke in opposition to the measure Tuesday, though previous attempts to remove the civil statute of limitations have stalled. The Missouri Catholic Conference, a branch of the church that lobbies the Legislature, previously testified against such efforts.

Tyler McClay, executive director of the conference, said they are still looking at the proposal and don’t have a formal position on it yet. He last testified against a similar bill in 2016 or 2017 and said his concerns had to do with due process for the people who are accused.

In July and August, the Archdiocese of St. Louis released the names of 63 clergy with substantiated abuse allegations against them and three who were found to have possessed child pornography. Clergy from Roman Catholic religious orders like the Marianists were not included on the list.

Peter Frangie, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said he was unfamiliar with the proposed legislation and had no comment on its merits.

Other states have lifted deadlines on child sex abuse victims suing for damages in court or opened temporary windows for people to file suit, leading to hundreds of lawsuits. In New York more than 600 lawsuits were filed since the state opened a yearlong window for civil suits on Aug. 14.

In her closing comments, Solon praised survivors of childhood sexual abuse, calling them strong people who have survived terrible things.

“If they’re willing to stand up in a court of law and say the things that are so personal and humiliating and hard for them, then we need to let them have their day in court in their time,“ she said.

The legislation is House Bill 1411.

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