Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Retrospective Legislation
Legislation extending the time during which abuse victims can sue may violate state constitutional provisions.
Missouri
State:
Key point: A number of states have enacted laws extending the time during which adult survivors of child sexual abuse can file lawsuits seeking damages for their injuries. Some of these laws may violate state constitutional provisions prohibiting "retrospective legislation."

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a state law extending the time during which an adult survivor of child sexual abuse could sue for damages violated the state constitution. An adult male sued his former priest, church, and Catholic diocese alleging that he had been repeatedly molested while a minor by the priest. The alleged victim claimed that he was intimidated into silence because of his trust in the priest, his belief that the priest was a close family friend, his perception of the priest's greater physical strength, and his young age. He also alleged that the abuse caused him to repress the incidents so that he was unable to know or perceive that he was a victim of sexual abuse or that he suffered injuries from that abuse. He further alleged that it was not until many years later (in 1989), with the aid of therapy, that he began to make the connection between physical and emotional injuries he suffered and the acts of abuse. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it had been filed after the statute of limitations expired. Under Missouri law, the general statute of limitations for personal injuries is five years (although for injuries occurring to minors, the statute does not begin to run until the minor's eighteenth birthday). However, Missouri enacted a statute in 1990 that provides: "In any civil action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse, the time for commencement of the action shall be within five years of the date the plaintiff attains the age of eighteen or within three years of the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or illness was caused by child sexual abuse, whichever later occurs." The parties to the case all agreed that the lawsuit had been filed within the extended period permitted by the 1990 statute since the alleged victim only "discovered" that his emotional problems were connected to the abuse in recent years. However, the church defendants maintained that this extended statute of limitations violated the Missouri Constitution, which prohibits the enactment of any law that is "retrospective in its operation." They argued that the original statute of limitations period of five years had expired by the time the Missouri legislature enacted the extended limitations statute, and accordingly the new law could not be applied to them. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed:

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