EDGELEY, N.D. — Lovice Brandenburg said she couldn’t fully articulate how she felt being sexually abused by relatives for more than a decade as a child, so she wrote it all down in a journal.
Until she was in her late 40s, she never told anyone about what happened to her between the ages of 6 and 17 because she thought it was normal for people to have sex with relatives, she said. When she finally realized the acts were far from being part of a typical childhood, she said she felt guilty, dirty, ashamed and ugly.
“I always felt like I was never loved, like I was never good enough,” she said. “I didn’t even know what love was. ... My kind of love was not love at all.”
It wasn’t until realizing how much her son loved her that she knew she wanted to prevent others from experiencing the same type of trauma. The 58-year-old woman’s story about the trauma she said she suffered is one of many that inspired North Dakota legislators to expand in recent years the statute of limitations on prosecuting sexual abuse cases with child victims.
Most recently, her husband, state Republican Rep. Mike Brandenburg of Edgeley sponsored House Bill 1425, which would allow prosecutors to pursue criminal charges in cases with victims under 18 years old for up to 21 years after the crime happened, or three years after the offense is reported if there is a delay in reporting. The House passed the bill 89-4 last week, and it's been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It would be a step up from other recent legislation, said Rep. Brandenburg, who has been in the House since 2005. In 2015, lawmakers extended the statute of limitations from seven to 10 years.
House Bill 1425 initially intended to rid North Dakota of any limitations on prosecuting sex crimes against children, but a compromise of 21 years was reached, he said.
“There needs to be some justice for the victims,” he said. “A lot of times, we were trying to protect the perpetrator more than we were trying to protect the people who were offended. That’s the part that needs to stop.”
Common to wait
It’s common for adults to wait to disclose sexual abuse that happened during childhood, said Laura Frisch, director of advocacy and empowerment for the Community Violence Intervention Center in Grand Forks. There have been studies on why they wait, but few on the average age of reporting, she said.
Victims "may disclose to a friend or other adult instead of law enforcement,” she said. “Depending on that reaction, it can really impact what they do next.”
Child USA, a nonprofit think tank that's studied delayed reporting of sexual abuse against children, released a report last year regarding statute-of-limitation reform in the wake of reports on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the Boston Archdiocese.
It cited German-based research by Medline that sampled more than 1,000 victims of child sexual abuse, more than half of whom claimed they were assaulted by clerics. Most of the victims — 30 to 50 percent — waited until they were adults to report the offenses, and 25 to 33 percent disclosed the abuse in childhood, according to the report. The average age of disclosure was 52.
Jeff Anderson is a St. Paul attorney who's worked with victims to have officials release names of clergy accused of sexually abusing children, including in the Catholic Diocese of Crookston, Minn. His law firm is working to force dioceses around the country to release the names of clergy accused of sexually abusing children.
However, the limited time victims have to report abuse is a hurdle, he said. The proposed extension to 21 years in North Dakota may not be enough since many wait until well into their 40s or later to report sex crimes, he said.
“That’s not the kind of extension that is going to help many people,” Anderson said.
The Catholic dioceses in Bismarck and Fargo said they do not have a position on House Bill 1425. Both have previously rejected requests by The Forum to release lists of accused clergy, citing employee privacy concerns.
This month, the Bismarck Diocese declined to comment on the matter, spokeswoman Sonia Mullally said. The Fargo Diocese is “in the process of reviewing all clergy files, but a decision has not been made as of yet” on whether a list of accused clergy will be released, spokesman Paul Braun said.
Child USA said North Dakota, Iowa and Montana have the worst statute of limitations in the U.S. for prosecuting sexual abuse involving children since victims must pursue charges before they turn 30 years old.
“Among the worst states, Iowa and Montana have made no changes since 2002, and the changes made by Louisiana, North Dakota, and Ohio are well behind the rest of the country,” the study said.
North Dakota has made strides in increasing the statute of limitations, said Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, who's sponsoring House Bill 1425 in the Senate. She believes the bill will pass in her chamber.
The Brandenburgs are happy the “needle has been moved” on the statute of limitations but will keep fighting to eliminate the limitation.
“Until my wife dies, we are going to keep going,” Rep. Brandenburg said.
'People really understand'
Legislative records show Lovice Brandenburg has testified multiple times in front of state House and Senate committees, describing the abuse and feelings of not being believed.
She told The Forum she turned to drugs to “put it behind me, or put it where I didn’t have to think about it." She went through multiple broken relationships and took part in therapy for several years.
The Forum reached out to the relatives who Lovice Brandenburg said sexually abused her. One did not return a phone message seeking comment, and the other denied the claims, saying it was “insane” that she testified about it in legislative committees.
“I bet they do believe her story, because that’s exactly what it is, is one hell of a story,” the relative said. The Forum is not naming the relatives because they have not been arrested or charged.
Rep. Hogan said she's been inspired by the stories she's heard from constituents who suffered sexual abuse as children but couldn’t pursue charges because of the statute of limitations. She said because of Lovice Brandenburg’s story, people believe adults who come forward now and say they were sexually abused as children.
“The thing that I have seen in my last eight years is that people really understand that this is real now,” Hogan said. “When we started a long time ago, it was not real. It wasn’t real. Now people know it’s real.”
Lovice Brandenburg acknowledged she can’t pursue charges against her relatives and the bill won’t help her, but she hopes the bill will prevent sexual abuse of children, or at least give them a path to seek retribution.
“That’s why I say I got justice,” she said of the progress in legislation. "I did it to help others and to set myself free."