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Statute of Limitations Prevents Church from Being Sued

Court rules statute of limitations prevents 23-year-old male from suing a church six years after abuse from youth pastor took place.

Sexual misconduct by clergy, lay employees, and volunteers

Key point 10-16.4. The statute of limitations specifies the deadline for filing a civil lawsuit. Lawsuits cannot be brought after this deadline has passed. There are a few exceptions that have been recognized by some courts: (1) The statute of limitations for injuries suffered by a minor begins to run on the minor's 18th birthday. (2) 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. (3) The statute of limitations does not begin to run until an adult with whom a minister or church counselor has had sexual contact "discovers" that his or her psychological damages were caused by the inappropriate contact. (4) The statute of limitations is suspended due to fraud or concealment of a cause of action.

* A Kentucky court ruled that the statute of limitations barred a victim of child sexual abuse from suing a church that employed the molester as its youth pastor. In 2007, a 23-year-old man (the "victim") sued his former church, alleging that he had been sexually molested while a minor by the church's youth pastor. The victim claimed that the church was legally responsible for the youth pastor's acts on the basis of negligent hiring, negligent supervision, and a failure to warn. The alleged molestation occurred when the victim was 14 and 15 years of age. The victim attained age 18 in 2001, and the following year informed his father of the abuse. This disclosure resulted in a report being made with the police. Following an investigation, the youth pastor was charged with felony child abuse, and later pled guilty to his crimes and was sentenced to prison.

The plaintiff sued the church in 2007, when he was 23 years old. The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it had been filed after the statute of limitations for personal injuries had expired. The trial court agreed that the lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations, and dismissed the case. It applied the one-year statute of limitations under state law that applies to personal injuries. In cases involving personal injuries to minors, the one-year period for filing a lawsuit does not commence until the minor's 18th birthday. In this case, that meant that the plaintiff should have filed his lawsuit prior to his 19th birthday. By the time he filed the lawsuit, at age 23, the limitations period had expired.

The plaintiff appealed, claiming that the one-year limitations period had been "tolled" or suspended by a state law allowing the period to be tolled if a defendant "obstructs" the filing of a lawsuit. The plaintiff claimed that the limitations period was tolled because the church either concealed or obstructed the filing of the lawsuit by concealing knowledge of the youth pastor's propensities for sexual abuse. He produced three affidavits to support his claim of concealment. One affidavit, signed by a married couple, stated that they had been informed by the victim's father that "he felt there was a problem with the way the youth pastor was interacting with his son." A second affidavit by another church member contained a vague assertion that she believed that another church member was aware of "problems" with the youth pastor. In the third affidavit, another member stated that he approached the pastor and indicated that he believed "something strange" was going on with the youth pastor.

The victim claimed that the church was legally responsible for the youth pastor's acts on the basis of negligent hiring, negligent supervision, and a failure to warn …. Following an investigation, the youth pastor was charged with felony child abuse, and later pled guilty to his crimes and was sentenced to prison.

The appeals court ruled that the affidavits failed to show that anyone at the church had knowledge or reason to believe that the youth pastor had behaved inappropriately with the church's youth or had any propensities to sexually abuse the youth, and as a result it refused to toll the limitations period. The court concluded:

In [a prior case] this court found that the limitations period was tolled where evidence showed that the church had received reports of sexual abuse and concealed them and had further maintained files documenting the reports of abuse. There is no such evidence in this case …. The affidavits here provide no information, even when taken in a light most favorable to the victim, which would allow this court or a jury to find that the church had any knowledge of the abuse.

Application. This case illustrates an important point. In many states, the statute of limitations is "tolled" in cases involving the sexual molestation of a minor in a church if it can be established that church leaders "obstructed" the victim's filing of a lawsuit by "concealing" evidence or knowledge of the abuse. This is a strong argument against denying or ignoring credible evidence of inappropriate conduct by staff members, especially in cases involving minors, since such a response may expose the church to liability long after the statute of limitations would otherwise have barred a lawsuit. 2010 WL 476046 (Ky. App. 2010).

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Posted:
  • July 1, 2011

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