Court Says Alleged Sexual Abuse Victim Can Sue Pastor, Not Denomination

Statute of limitations not expired yet.

Church Law and Tax 1996-07-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

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 or should have discovered that he or she has experienced physical or emotional suffering as a result of the molestation.

A Minnesota court ruled that a 38—year—old man’s lawsuit against a pastor who had molested him when he was a minor may not be barred by the statute of limitations. The victim was molested on several occasions when he was thirteen through fifteen years of age by the pastor of his church. The incidents of molestation ranged from the showing of pornography in the pastor’s office to criminal forms of sexual contact. On one occasion, while the pastor and victim were both at a “Bible camp,” thevictim awoke to find the pastor touching his penis. The pastor told the victim to follow him outside to another building, where the pastor forcibly engaged in sexual contact with him. The pastor then led the victim down to a lake, telling him that they had to strip naked so that the pastor could perform a “baptis”m on him. After going through a baptism—like procedure, the victim returned to his cabin. Within a few months following the events at the camp, the victim ran away from home. He worked as a male prostitute for several years and spent a substantial portion of his adult life in prison for various felony offenses. He also experienced a wide range of emotional disorders including distress, embarrassment, loss of self—esteem, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of spiritual life. He did not disclose the pastor’s behavior with anyone until 1991, when he confided in his brother and was shocked to learn that his brother had been molested by the same pastor. The victim claimed that at that moment he realized the connection between his psychological problems and the abuse. He filed a lawsuit two years later against the pastor, his former church, and a parent denomination. A trial court dismissed the case on the ground that the victim had filed his lawsuit after the statute of limitations had expired. Minnesota law provides that “[a]n action for damages based on personal injury caused by sexual abuse must be commenced within six years of the time the [victim] knew or had reason to know that the injury was caused by the sexual abuse.” The victim appealed the trial court’s dismissal of the case, arguing that he did not know that his injuries were caused by the abuse until 1991—and that he filed his lawsuit within six years of that date as required by the statute. A state appeals court concluded that the victim could sue the pastor, but that the church and denominational agency had to be dismissed from the lawsuit.

the pastor

The pastor, church, and denominational agency all insisted that the victim knew that he had been abused by the pastor, and that the abuse had injured him, far more than six years before filing the lawsuit. They pointed to the following facts: (1) The victim admitted that he had “never forgot” what the pastor had done to him. (2) The victim testified that he always recalled the pastor’s actions whenever he engaged in acts of male prostitution. (3) The victim ran away from home when he was fifteen because he did not want to ever see the pastor again. The court disagreed that these facts supported a dismissal of the lawsuit on the basis of the statute of limitations. It relied on the following additional facts: (1) The victim did not discuss the pastor’s behavior with anyone until 1991. (2) The victim testified that he did his best to “block out” all memories of the pastor’s misconduct. (3) The victim testified that while for many years he was uncomfortable and embarrassed about the abuse, he did not realize until recently whether it was right or wrong. At the time of the abuse the victim was an adolescent who placed great trust in his pastor. Adding to his confusion was the fact that the pastor suggested that the abuse was appropriate by telling the victim to keep the matter a secret between them and God, and by conducting the “baptism” ceremony at church camp. (4) The victim testified that the abuse was only one of the reasons that he ran away from home.

The court acknowledged “the need to limit unnecessarily delayed sexual abuse claims,” and that there was “significant evidence supporting a reasonable conclusion that [the victim’s] suit is barred” by the statute of limitations. However, this evidence was not so conclusive as to justify a dismissal of the case. Accordingly, the court sent the case back to the trial court to let a jury decide if the statute of limitations barred the lawsuit.

the church and denominational agency

On the other hand, the court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of the case against the church and denominational agency. The court noted that the lawsuit claimed that the church and denominational agency were liable for the victim’s injuries on the basis of “respondeat superior” and negligence in the hiring and supervision of the pastor. Respondeat superior is a legal doctrine that imposes liability on employers for the negligent acts of their employees committed within the scope of their employment. The court concluded that the statute of limitations for respondeat superior claims is two years under Minnesota law, and that the victim had failed to file his lawsuit within two years of his conversation with his brother in 1991 when he claimed he first associated his injuries with the abuse.

The court noted that the six year statute of limitations for child sexual abuse permits a victim to sue an organization that “negligently permitted the sexual abuse against the [victim] to occur.” However, the court refused to allow the victim to pursue his lawsuit against the church and denominational agency because the victim “has failed to produce any evidence of negligence. It is uncontroverted that no member or employee of the church knew of [the pastor’s] abusive conduct with this or any other victim until after the incidents with [the victim] had ended. [The victim] admits that the incidents took place in private and that he himself told no one.”

What is the significance of this case to churches? It will be a useful precedent for churches to cite when they are sued by victims of child molestation who claim that the church acted negligently in the selection or supervision of the molester. This conclusion is all the more noteworthy given the fact that the molester in this case was a pastor who allegedly molested several dozen minors in the same congregation. Winkler v. Magnuson, 539 N.W.2d 821 (Minn. App. 1995). [ Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

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