• Key point. The first amendment guaranty of religious freedom does not necessarily prevent the civil courts from resolving lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct by clergy.
• 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 Florida court ruled that a 27-year-old man who had been molested by a priest when he was a minor was barred by the statute of limitations from suing his church. A priest committed improper acts with an altar boy starting when the boy was thirteen and continuing until he was twenty-five years old. At some point the young man realized that the priest had indeed committed horrible wrongs against him and that the church, either directly or through the bishop, might be legally responsible for these wrongs. As a result, the victim sued the priest on the basis of the sexual abuse of a minor. He also sued the church and the bishop on the basis of negligent hiring and retention of a priest they knew or should have known was unsuitable to have contact with children. The church and bishop asserted two defenses. First, that the victim waited too long to file his lawsuit, and that it was barred by the statute of limitations. Second, that the first amendment prevents a civil court from intruding into a church's selection, training, supervision, and assignment of priests.