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Sexual Molestation Suit Against Priest, Church Dismissed

Statute of limitations had expired.

Kentucky
State:

Rigazio v. Archdiocese of Louisville, 1993 WL 153206 (Ky. App. 1993) (unpublished opinion)

Key point: Minors who are sexually molested by church workers may not sue their church after the statute of limitations has expired. Generally, the statute of limitations begins to run on a minor's 18th birthday. In some states the statute of limitations does not begin to run until an adult survivor of child sexual molestation "discovers" that he or she has experienced physical or emotional suffering as a result of the molestation. Other states do not recognize this so-called "discovery rule."

A Kentucky appeals court ruled that a 24-year-old adult was barred by the statute of limitations from suing a priest and his church on account of the priest's alleged acts of molestation.

A Catholic priest sexually molested a young boy who attended a parochial school. The acts of molestation occurred while the victim was between 10 and 13 years of age. When the boy was 13, the priest was reassigned to another parish and never saw the victim again. The victim turned 18 years of age on January 30, 1982, and later joined the army. He was discharged in 1985. On September 9, 1987, the victim attempted suicide. In a statement to a police officer investigating the suicide attempt, the victim (according to his testimony) for the first time revealed that he had been sexually abused.

On September 8, 1988, the victim sued the priest, the parochial school, and the archdiocese for battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. While there was medical testimony that Donald had suppressed the memory of the abuse into his subconscious mind and did not remember it until the suicide attempt, there was also medical testimony casting doubt on whether that had occurred.

On November 13, 1990, trial court dismissed the victim's lawsuit (against all of the defendants except the priest) on the ground that it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. The victim appealed. A state appeals court agreed that the lawsuit was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. The statute of limitations specifies the time during which a lawsuit must be brought. Lawsuits commenced after the statute of limitations has expired are dismissed, no matter how meritorious the claim.

The statute of limitations in Kentucky for both battery negligence is one year. However, under Kentucky law (as is true in most states) the statute of limitations does not begin to run for injuries suffered by a minor until the minor's eighteenth birthday. In other words, the statute of limitations for battery and negligence expired one year after the victim's eighteenth birthday, or January 30, 1982, some six years before the lawsuit was filed. The statute of limitations for intentional infliction of emotional distress is five years in Kentucky, and this period expired one year before the lawsuit was filed.

The victim argued that there are certain exceptions to the statute of limitations that applied in this case. First, Kentucky law provides that the statute of limitations is suspended if a person is of "unsound mind" when a cause of action accrues. The victim claimed that he had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that he had repressed the memory of the abuse until September 9, 1987, the day of his attempted suicide. The court disagreed, noting that the term unsound mind under Kentucky law means that a person has been rendered incapable of managing his or her own affairs and accordingly "[t]he mere fact that [the victim] experienced a repression syndrome is not synonymous with being of unsound mind."

Further, the court pointed out that "at the time the acts of abuse occurred [when the victim was between 10 and 13 years of age] the victim's cause of action accrued and he was then well aware of the abuse. His memory of the abuse became suppressed only after he was older and in high school. Thus, he was not suffering from post-traumatic memory loss when the cause of action accrued as required by the statute." Second, the victim claimed that the statute of limitations should not begin to run until he "discovered" his injuries, and this did not occur until the day of his suicide attempt (which occurred less than one year before he filed the lawsuit).

The court acknowledged that Kentucky has adopted a "discovery rule" in the context of medical malpractice, but "[n]either the Supreme Court nor the General Assembly has further extended the discovery rule." Further, the court observed: "It should again be noted that at the time [the victim's] cause of action accrued, and for sometime thereafter, he was both aware of the abuse and past the age of reason. The fact that his memory of these events was thereafter suppressed, only to return years later, would not seem to present a circumstance falling within the discovery rule which relates to injuries which cannot be discovered with reasonable diligence."

Finally, the victim argued that the statute of limitations was suspended while he was in the army. The court agreed with this argument, but concluded that the allegations of battery and negligence were not filed within the statute of limitations, since the victim was discharged from the army three years before the lawsuit was filed.

The court conceded that the statute of limitations for intentional infliction of emotional distress is five years, and this period had not expired at the time the lawsuit was filed. However, the court noted that there was "no evidence whatsoever" to raise an inference that the school or archdiocese engaged in any extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly inflicting emotional distress on the victim. While the priest's actions might be deemed sufficiently outrageous to constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress, the court concluded that such actions were "incident to the commission of the intentional torts of assault and battery."

The court concluded that the one-year statute of limitations applied rather than the five-year statute when the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress is based on an underlying assault or battery (as occurs during sexual molestation). Therefore, the lawsuit against the priest was barred by the statute of limitations.

This case will be a useful precedent to churches that are sued many years after an incident of child sexual abuse. The court concluded that a victim's "suppressed memory" will not necessarily suspend the statute of limitations. This is particularly true when the victim is aware of his injuries at the time of the molestation, and for some thereafter, and only later represses the memory of the event.

As the court noted, "[t]he fact that [the victim's] memory of these events was thereafter suppressed, only to return years later, would not seem to present a circumstance falling within the discovery rule which relates to injuries which cannot be discovered with reasonable diligence."

See also Insurance, All American Insurance Company v. Burns, 971 F.2d 438 (10th Cir. 1992).

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Posted:
  • July 1, 1993

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