Abuse Case Will Not Go Forward

Discovery argument rejected in attempt to extend statute of limitations

E.J.M. v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, A.2d (Pa. Super. 1993), 1993 WL 100641

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 Pennsylvania appeals court ruled that a 27-year-old adult was barred by the statute of limitations from suing a priest and his church on account of the priest's alleged acts of molestation.

The victim, a member of a devoutly Catholic family, began to attend weekly prayer groups at a Catholic church in late 1976. At that time, the victim was fourteen years old. The defendant priest was the leader of the prayer group. The priest also was a teacher at a parochial high school that the victim attended. The victim claimed that shortly after he began attending the prayer group he decided to become a Catholic priest. Not long after this decision the defendant priest undertook the role of spiritual adviser and became intimately acquainted with the victim and his family.

The victim alleged that the priest abused this trust by sexually molesting him on countless occasions from 1976 through 1981. Although the victim reached the age of majority in 1980 and concedes that the alleged abuse ended in 1981, he did not file a lawsuit against the priest or his church until late 1989. His reason for this delay was that he did not "become aware" of or discover the psychological and emotional injuries he suffered as a result of the alleged abuse until late 1988.

The victim alleged that the priest informed him that the acts of molestation were "therapy" and were "necessary for my spiritual growth and preparation for ordination, and that it would rid me of pride unpleasing to God." He further alleged that because of "the exalted position in which priests were regarded within my family, I did not believe or consider that [the priest's] actions with me were wrong. My mindset was that because he was a priest he had to be right about this therapy and training being necessary for me to become a good priest. I dealt with my confusion about this therapy by rationalizing that there was something wrong with me. I thought I had a problem …. I felt I was at fault. I felt guilty and sinful."

A little over a year after his alleged discovery concerning the damage he had suffered as a result of the priest's actions, he filed a lawsuit. He alleged sexual assault and battery, clergy malpractice, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He also sued his church on the basis of negligent hiring.

A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that it was barred by a Pennsylvania statute of limitations which requires that lawsuits be filed within two years of the date of injury. The victim appealed, arguing that the statute of limitations should not begin to run until the date that he "discovered" that he had been injured by the priest's molestation. Since this "discovery" allegedly occurred in 1988, the lawsuit was not barred by the statute of limitations.

A state appeals court disagreed, and refused to apply the "discovery" rule in this case. It observed:

Here, [the victim] does not argue that he suffered from a physical disability or that his minority at the time of the abuse prevented him from discovering his injury or its cause. Instead, his precise argument is that although he always knew what [the priest] had allegedly done to him, i.e. the actual physical acts performed, and never repressed his memories of those acts, he nevertheless did not know until approximately one year before filing suit that those acts were "abuse" and had caused him psychological and emotional harm. [The victim] contends that his failure to realize that he had been "abused" and harmed thereby resulted both from his own respect for and trust in [his priest and the priest's] assurances to him that the sexual acts being performed were necessary for his spiritual development …. Pennsylvania courts apply the discovery rule in only the most limited of circumstances, where the plaintiff could not, despite the exercise of reasonable diligence, discover his or her injury or its cause.

In many Pennsylvania discovery rule cases, the inability of the plaintiff to discover his or her injury arose from the nature of the injury itself. For example, the rule has been applied in medical malpractice cases where the plaintiff has no reason to suspect anything is amiss and the physician's malpractice is not discovered by the plaintiff until it begins to manifest itself in perceptible symptoms. In contrast, in a case such as this where the underlying cause of action is fundamentally one for battery, which basically is defined as an intentional unconsensual harmful contact, a plaintiff will ordinarily know all he or she needs to know concerning the injury and its cause at the moment the battery occurs. It is the rare battery case where such knowledge is not readily discernable. Second … under Pennsylvania law, "[t]he standard of reasonable diligence is an objective or external one that is the same for all individuals. It is not a subjective one." In other words, Pennsylvania law does not permit the tolling of a statute of limitations on account of an incapacity of the particular plaintiff which allegedly impaired his or her ability to discover the injury or its cause …. Lastly … under Pennsylvania law, the fact that a plaintiff is not aware that the defendant's conduct is wrongful, or legally actionable, is irrelevant. The plaintiff need only know that he or she has been injured and the cause of the injury; once this is known the plaintiff must investigate to determine if the defendant's actions give rise to a legal remedy ….

In our view … it is perfectly clear that this case does not fall within the extremely limited applicability of the Pennsylvania discovery rule. This is simply not a case where the plaintiff, despite the exercise of objectively measured reasonable diligence, could not know of his injury and its cause within the limitations period. [The victim] admits that he knew the abuse was occurring and who was inflicting it, both when it happened and throughout the eight years after the abuse ended and before appellant sued. What he did not know, i.e., that the physical acts allegedly performed on him by [the priest] were "abuse" and were causing psychological harm, is not relevant to a discovery rule analysis …. [The victim] need not have known that what was happening to him was "abuse," i.e., was wrongful, or precisely what type of psychological or emotional harm he would suffer as a result. Once he knew what was happening and who was doing it, he had the duty to investigate these questions and to institute suit within the limitations period. Moreover, the affidavit submitted by [the victim] in opposition to summary judgment … clearly reveals that he was aware, if not that he had been "abused," nevertheless that something very troubling and extraordinary was happening to him. He states that he felt "confused" about what [his priest] was doing to him, thought "something was wrong with me," and "felt guilty and sinful." Clearly, he not only knew all the relevant facts regarding the abuse and the abuser, but he also knew that something was very wrong with the situation in which he found himself ….

The alleged abuse in this case continued for years and only ended when [the victim] was twenty years old. It is beyond comprehension that [the victim] would not or should not have questioned whether his relationship with [the priest] was truly aimed solely at his preparation for the priesthood. In fact, his own affidavit belies such a conclusion, for therein he indicates that he in fact was not completely lulled into a sense of security by [the priest's] assurances. [The victim] did recognize that something was amiss, and although he allegedly blamed himself for these feelings, that alone does not relieve him of the duty to investigate and bring suit within the limitations period.

This case will be a useful precedent in the minority of states that recognize the "discovery" rule exception to the statute of limitations in cases of child sexual molestation. This court found it "beyond comprehension" that a teenager who is sexually molested by a church leader over a period of years would not comprehend "his or her injury and its cause." Accordingly, the statute of limitations begins to run on the minor's 18th birthday, and not at some later date when the victim claims to have "discovered" that he or she was damaged by the prior abuse. (emphasis added)

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