In January 2021, the North Dakota attorney general announced the end of an 18-month clergy abuse investigation. Shortly after his announcement, state lawmakers began considering two bills to help survivors of priest abuse and other childhood sex abuse.
One proposed bill would open a two-year “look back” window for survivors of child sexual abuse. If passed, victims abused decades ago would have a second chance to seek legal justice.
Lawmakers were also considering a bill to change the mandatory reporting laws for clergy members. The bill would have required clergy members to report cases of child abuse admitted during confession. Following criticism from the Catholic Church and religious-rights advocates, lawmakers withdrew the controversial bill.
North Dakota Clergy Abuse Investigation Ends
In June 2019, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem launched a clergy abuse investigation. The investigation began shortly after the Dioceses of Bismarck and Fargo released the names of clergy members accused of child sexual abuse. The two dioceses named 53 clergy members in total.
Investigators reviewed Catholic Church records of sexual abuse complaints. The goal of this investigation was to identify any abusive clergy members who could be prosecuted for their crimes.
Unfortunately, according to the investigation’s results, only two priests accused of abuse in the North Dakota dioceses are still alive. Currently, neither priest can face criminal charges because the state’s criminal statute of limitations has expired.
A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legal deadline. SOLs vary based on the jurisdiction, the crime and the intended legal action (criminal charges versus a civil claim).
Survivors of clergy abuse can still contact the attorney general’s office about sexual abuse allegations by calling the tip line at 1-800-472-2185 or by emailing [email protected].
“I regret it will not be possible to have these men face their victims at a trial and face the potential consequences, but I hope it brings a measure of comfort to the victims that these crimes were eventually investigated.”
North Dakota’s Proposed Child Sex Abuse Legislation
Since the attorney general’s investigation concluded in January 2021, North Dakota lawmakers have proposed two pieces of legislation to address child sexual abuse in the state.
North Dakota Lawmakers Consider “Look Back” Window
In February 2021, North Dakota lawmakers proposed House Bill 1382 (HB 1382). If passed, bipartisan legislation would open a two-year “look back” window for childhood sexual abuse survivors. The two-year revival window would begin on August 1, 2021.
This window would suspend the state’s civil statute of limitations, allowing any child sex abuse survivor to file a legal claim. This would allow survivors currently barred by the state’s statute to seek justice.
This type of legislative window has been used successfully in several other states to expand the rights of child sexual abuse survivors. California, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina all have open “look back” windows. Pennsylvania lawmakers are also working on a similar window for abuse survivors.
North Dakota Lawmakers Withdraw Mandatory Clergy Reporting Bill
In January 2021, North Dakota lawmakers introduced a bill that would have required clergy members to report child abuse revealed to them during confession or other private religious meetings.
Under current law, clergy members in North Dakota are mandatory reporters. However, there is one exception to this law; a clergy member does not have to report suspected child abuse or neglect if the information was revealed while the clergy member was acting “in the capacity of spiritual advisor.” For Catholic priests, this exception would refer to the sacrament of confession.
This piece of legislation received a lot of criticism from Catholic organizations. Some believed the bill would undermine the sanctity of confession. Bishop David Kagan of the Bismarck Diocese said this of the bill, “This makes the state, I should say, a moderator of our Catholic faith and practice and not the Catholic Church.”
In response to the backlash, the North Dakota Senate withdrew the bill on January 29, 2021. Lawmakers will continue to look for ways to prevent child sexual abuse and make amends with survivors.
“I think the conversation has to continue. We all need to recognize this serious epidemic of child abuse. We all need to do what we can to protect these little ones by intervening … and the abuser must be stopped. If you see something do something. If you and I don’t do something, who will?”
Belloso, P. (2021, January 4). Attorney general says no charges will be filed in child sex abuse investigation. KVRR.
Boland, H. (2021, January 29). North Dakota Senate withdraws bill requiring mandatory reporting for clergies. KFYR.
Hagen, C.S. (2021 February 1). North Dakota bill to close child abuse reporting loophole nixed after Catholic opposition. Grand Forks Herald.
House Bill No. 1382, 67th Legislative Assembly (North Dakota 2021).
Kolpack, D. (2021, January 4). No charges against North Dakota priests accused of sex abuse. The Associated Press.
MacPherson, J. (2021, February 3). Bill aims to extend time for abuse victims to file claims. The Associated Press.