Man Sues Church for Abuse Suffered as Minor

Court rules that the statute of limitations bars him from suing.

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point. The first amendment guaranty of religious freedom does not necessarily prevent the civil courts from resolving lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct by clergy.

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 Florida court ruled that a 27-year-old man who had been molested by a priest when he was a minor was barred by the statute of limitations from suing his church. A priest committed improper acts with an altar boy starting when the boy was thirteen and continuing until he was twenty-five years old. At some point the young man realized that the priest had indeed committed horrible wrongs against him and that the church, either directly or through the bishop, might be legally responsible for these wrongs. As a result, the victim sued the priest on the basis of the sexual abuse of a minor. He also sued the church and the bishop on the basis of negligent hiring and retention of a priest they knew or should have known was unsuitable to have contact with children. The church and bishop asserted two defenses. First, that the victim waited too long to file his lawsuit, and that it was barred by the statute of limitations. Second, that the first amendment prevents a civil court from intruding into a church’s selection, training, supervision, and assignment of priests.

statute of limitations

The court agreed with the church and bishop that the victim’s lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations. The court noted that the victim was suing the church and bishop for negligence in the hiring and retention of the priest. Under Florida law, the statute of limitations for negligence lawsuits is four years. Since this period is suspended until a minor plaintiff reaches age eighteen, the victim had until age twenty-two to file a lawsuit against the church and bishop. The victim did not sue until he was twenty-seven, but insisted that the statute of limitations should have been suspended further until he became “aware” of his injuries. The court rejected this argument:

This young man knew the identity of the [priest] and the improper conduct engaged in by the [priest] long before he reached the age of majority. This was sufficient knowledge to file an action against the priest for the wrongful sexual battery committed against him and, again assuming such cause of action is available, against the church and bishop for making such conduct possible because of the negligent retention of the priest …. [T]he negligent retention of a priest who would commit child abuse, at least insofar as this young man is concerned, must have occurred while he was still a child. Therefore, when [the victim] turned eighteen, he was aware that a priest had sexually abused him and that the church had permitted the priest to serve in the parish which made the abuse possible. Sexual abuse of a child in and of itself causes sufficient actual damages, as a matter of law, to support both the intentional tort action against the priest and the negligence action, if one exists, against the church and the bishop …. The fact that [the victim] in this case was not immediately aware of all of his resulting emotional problems might create uncertainty as to the amount of his damages but it does not toll the period of limitations.

negligent hiring and retention

Since the court ruled that the statute of limitations barred the victim’s lawsuit against the church and bishop, it was not required to decide whether or not the first amendment prevents the civil courts from resolving negligence claims brought against churches for the sexual misconduct of clergy. However, the court did make the following observation:

In any event, we are persuaded that just as the state may prevent a church from offering human sacrifices, it may protect its children against injuries caused by pedophiles by authorizing civil damages against a church that knowingly (including should know) creates a situation in which such injuries are likely to occur. We recognize that the state’s interest must be compelling indeed in order to interfere in the church’s selection, training and assignment of its clerics. We would draw the line at criminal conduct.

liability for the priest’s actions after the minor reached adulthood

The victim claimed that the priest’s inappropriate sexual behavior continued until the victim was twenty-five years of age, and that the statute of limitations did not prevent him from suing the church and bishop for at least some of this behavior. The court disagreed:

Insofar as the adult acts are concerned, we conclude that the sexual acts between the adult participants herein were not criminal. [The victim] does not contend that he did not consent to the continued relationship. It is his position that his consent should be considered invalid because the priest “deliberately and calculatingly caused a relationship whereby [he] was able to exert undue influence, dominion and control over the [victim].” We do not believe that a sexual battery has been committed when a person of normal intelligence submits to a sexual relationship due to the “emotional attachment” to another person.

Application. This case is noteworthy for the following reasons: (1) It demonstrates the obstacle that the statute of limitations poses to adults attempting to sue for incidents of molestation that occurred when they were minors. Even those courts that are willing to suspend the statute of limitations until a victim “discovers” his or her injuries are very reluctant to do so when the acts of molestation occurred when the victim was an adolescent (as opposed to a young child). (2) This court would permit churches to be sued for negligent hiring or retention of clergy in cases involving criminal misconduct. Other courts have concluded that the first amendment prevents churches from being sued for negligently hiring or retaining ministers. (3) The court emphasized that adults who engage in consensual sexual acts with a priest cannot later sue for damages. Doe v. Dorsey, 683 So.2d 614 (Fl. App. 1996). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denomina tional Liability]

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