Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Lawsuits by Victims of Child Abuse
Court rules that man abused as child can sue his former diocese for injuries.
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 federal court in Vermont ruled that an adult who claimed to have been sexually abused by a nun some 40 years earlier could sue a Catholic diocese for his alleged injuries. In 1992, an adult male (the plaintiff) began receiving intensive psychotherapy for what he alleges were severe emotional problems. As a result of this therapy, the plaintiff claims that he discovered he was the victim of "childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse and psychological abuse" allegedly occurring forty years ago when he was a resident of a church orphanage. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit in 1993 against "Sister Jane Doe," the alleged perpetrator whose identity is yet unknown, and various religious organizations allegedly responsible for hiring and supervising Sister Jane Doe. The plaintiff alleged in his lawsuit that he has "used all due diligence, given the nature, extent, and severity of his psychological injuries and the circumstances of their infliction, to discover the fact that he has been injured by the sexual abuse." The lawsuit listed the following five theories of liability against Sister Jane Doe: childhood sexual abuse, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy. In addition, the lawsuit claimed that the orphanage and Catholic diocese were liable for his injuries on the basis of negligence. The diocese urged the court to dismiss the case on the ground that the statute of limitations had expired long before. Under Vermont law, when a plaintiff sues to recover damages for injuries "suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse," the lawsuit must be brought within "six years of the act alleged to have caused the injury or condition, or six years of the time the victim discovered that the injury or condition was caused by that act, whichever period expires later." The diocese claimed that since the alleged abuse occurred over forty years ago it is reasonable to assume that the plaintiff should have discovered the cause of his injuries long ago. It also argued that forcing it to defend against an alleged injury occurring so long ago violates the very purpose of a statute of limitations—relieving defendants of the difficult if not impossible task of defending against such claims. The court rejected these arguments, and ruled that the statute of limitations had not expired on any of the plaintiff's claims (except for assault and battery, which the court deemed to be unrelated to childhood sexual abuse). The court observed that under Vermont law the test is when the plaintiff in fact discovered that his injuries were caused by childhood abuse, and not when he reasonably could have made this discovery.

Log In For Full Access

Interested in becoming a member? Learn more.

Posted: September 1, 1994
View All
from our store
Pastor, Church & Law, Fifth Edition

Pastor, Church & Law, Fifth Edition

Learn which local, state, and federal laws apply to religious organizations.
Managing the Legal Risks of Lay Counseling

Managing the Legal Risks of Lay Counseling

Develop specific policies and procedures that protect your church, lay caregivers, and those who receive care.
Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting Laws

Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting Laws

State by state laws to report child abuse.
Church Issues: Waivers and Release Forms and Church Liability

Church Issues: Waivers and Release Forms and Church Liability

What these documents do—and don't do—based on statutes and court decisions made nationwide.

ChurchSalary

ChurchSalary

Experience a whole new way to set compensation. Eliminate the guesswork – get access to detailed compensation reports in just minutes.