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"Repression" and the Statute of Limitations

In some states, the "discovery rule" allows victims to sue for past abuse.

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."

The Maryland Court of Appeals (the highest state court) ruled that an adult's "repression" of memories associated with childhood sexual abuse is not a sufficient basis for suspending or delaying the statute of limitations. Two female students at a Catholic high school alleged that they were subjected to severe and repeated acts of sexual molestation by a priest to whom they had been sent for counseling. They alleged that the molestation began when they were in ninth grade and continued all the way up until their graduation. The victims claimed that following their graduation from high school they "ceased to recall" the abuse due to the process of "repression." It was not until twenty years later, during counseling, that they "recovered" their memories of the abuse. They filed a lawsuit against the priest, their former school, and the archdiocese. A state appeals court ruled that the lawsuit had to be dismissed on the basis of the statute of limitations. Maryland law requires such lawsuits to be filed within three years after a minor attains her eighteenth birthday. The court acknowledged that in some cases the "discovery rule" has been applied-meaning that the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the victim "discovers" that his or her injuries were caused by a particular event. However, the court refused to apply the discovery rule to cases of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. It reached the following conclusions:

(1) The concept of repression is defined as the selective and involuntary forgetting of information that causes pain. Repressed information is not forgotten, but instead is stored in the unconsciousness and may be recovered at a later time if the anxiety associated with the memory is removed.

(2) Several professional studies attempt to validate the concept of repression.

(3) Several other professional studies discredit the concept of repression. These studies assert that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the claim that repression exists.

(4) It is impossible to distinguish between repression and "faking."

(5) Since serious disagreement exists within the psychological community regarding the validity of repression theory, it would be inappropriate for a court to recognize it.

The court concluded that "we are unconvinced that repression exists as a phenomenon separate and apart from the normal process of forgetting." And, because the discovery rule does not help those who merely forget their injuries or legal claims, it should not help those who claim that their memories were repressed and later recovered.

Application. This case will be a helpful precedent for churches to use when they are sued for alleged incidents of molestation occurring many years ago. The court's analysis and rejection of the "repression" theory will be invaluable in challenging the use of this theory to extend the statute of limitations. Doe v. Maskell, 679 A.2d 1087 (Md. 1996). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denomina tional Liability]

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  • May 1, 1997

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