South Dakota Legislature Gets New Sex-Abuse Bill

South Dakota has an opportunity to get tough on sexual predators.

State representative Steve Hickey (R.-District 9, Minnehaha County) has just submitted a bill to the legislature that would rescind a 2010 law that tightened the statute of limitations for claims of childhood sexual abuse. Called HB1104, the law made it harder to sue if the victim was over 40 when he or she decided to do so.

“All we victims want is justice,” said Izzy Zephier, an elder of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, who has brought a childhood-sexual-abuse suit against St. Paul’s Indian Mission, in Marty, South Dakota; the Diocese of Sioux Falls; and the orders that supplied the school with nuns and priests and other staff. “When you pass a law to protect the predator, you make it worse for the victim. Even when you protect victims, that doesn’t take away the lifelong damage that was done. But we want our day in court.”

Because HB1104 passed after about 100 American Indians filed abuse lawsuits, many have said those cases were targeted. “Passing that law said it’s okay to abuse Native American children in South Dakota,” charged Zephier.

The bill is now in committee and will be heard in the legislative session that begins in January 2012, said Hickey, who is a minister at Church at the Gate, in Sioux Falls. “I expect several co-sponsors for the bill,” he said.

Hickey condemned HB1104, which was written as a so-called “constituent bill” by Steve Smith, a Catholic Church lawyer defending about a dozen childhood-sexual-abuse cases that American Indians had brought against his client Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart, which runs St. Joseph’s Indian School, in Chamberlain, South Dakota. “It’s scandalous and shameful that someone who is litigating abuse cases drafted and supported passage of a bill that shelters his client,” said Hickey. “This was not made clear to our citizen legislature, which works very fast, handling some 500 bills in 38 days. Nor was it made clear to legislators that HB1104 was going to affect court cases already in the system.”

Robert Brancato, director of the South Dakota chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a national advocacy group, said that HB1104 may have arisen from an attorney’s desire to protect Church-related clients, but that the fix Hickey’s bill would provide is bigger than that: “The new bill will protect children going forward in Catholic school, public school—wherever predators seek them out. South Dakota must ensure that victims can pursue perpetrators and that victims get their day in court. We have to think about the future of all our children.”

The bill has bi-partisan support, said Hickey, and the legislature will hear a full range of testimony by experts; in 2010, Smith provided the only testimony. “Since submitting the bill, I’ve heard legislators speculate about ‘repressed memory’ or say the limit of age 40 provides enough time to decide to bring a suit,” said Hickey. “I respond that it’s not up to the legislature to weed out court cases ahead of time.”

“We are praying for everyone involved in this process and will do so until there is justice,” said Zephier, who will testify before the legislature. “God hears us. And we must remember that God is always watching all of us.”