Man Alleges Sexual Abuse; Sues Priest and Diocese

Experts find that cases of memory suppression are unlikely.

Church Law and Tax 1997-07-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

A Louisiana court ruled that a 32—year—old adult’s lawsuit against a diocese and a priest who molested him when he was a minor was barred by the statute of limitations. The victim claimed that he was molested when he was 14 years old by his parish priest. He insisted that he had no recollection of the molestation until he watched a television program on sexual misconduct by clergy when he was 32 years old. This program allegedly “restored his memory” of the acts of molestation that occurred when he was 14. He filed a lawsuit within a few weeks, but a trial court dismissed the case on the basis of the statute of limitations. It rejected the victims claim that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until his memory of the molestation was restored after watching the television program.

There are a number of aspects to the court’s ruling that are worth noting:

1. The court referred to the following “Statement on Memories of Sexual Abuse” adopted in 1993 by the American Psychiatric Association:

Children and adolescents who have been abused cope with the trauma by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. In some instances, these coping mechanisms result in a lack of conscious awareness of the abuse for varying periods of time. Conscious thoughts and feelings stemming from the abuse may emerge at a later date.

2. The court referred to the testimony of two recognized experts in the field of the sexual abuse of children and memory suppression (Dr. David Corwin and Dr. Gene Usdin). The court summarized the testimony of these experts as follows:

Both [experts], using literature on the topic, explained that children abused before the age of six are more likely to exhibit memory suppression, and that the likelihood decreases the older the child is when the incident occurs. The studies showed that suppression is infrequent in children molested between the ages of twelve and eighteen.

3. The court noted that the same two psychological experts agreed that “the most traumatic events generally are the last to be remembered as well as the last to be disclosed by victims of child sexual abuse.”

4. The court noted that one of the experts “knew of no other reported case involving total suppression of a major trauma for such an extended period of time.”

Application. The importance of this case is the court’s discussion of the testimony of the two experts in the field of child sexual abuse. Perhaps most importantly, the experts agreed that cases of children suppressing memories of molestation are very unlikely among minors between twelve and eighteen years of age. Further, cases of total suppression over extended periods of time are very rare. J.A.G. v. Schmaltz, 682 So.2d 331 (La. App,. 1996). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability—Defenses]

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