Molestation Case Against Church School Teacher Dismissed

Lawsuit was filed after statute of limitations expired, court ruled.

Church Law and Tax 1996-05-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Staff

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 dismissed a lawsuit brought by an adult who had been sexually molested while a minor by a teacher at a church school on the ground that the lawsuit was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. A 9th grade boy was repeatedly molested by his teacher throughout the 1973—74 school year. The victim at one point asked the teacher if “what we are doing is alright.” The teacher responded that it was “okay” and that two other students were also part of this “special group.” All of the incidents of molestation occurred on school property, and most of them took place in the teacher’s office. After many of these incidents, the victim would hide under a pew in the school’s chapel and cry, sometimes staying there for hours at a time. While the molestation was occurring, the victim began using alcohol and marijuana, and his grades dropped significantly. He ran away from home and was briefly incarcerated for theft. The victim saw many counselors over the years for depression and suicidal tendencies, but never told any of them about the abuse. In 1992, the victim watched a television documentary about victims of sexual abuse by priest. The victim later claimed that it was at that time that he realized many of the problems in his life could be traced to the teacher’s acts of molestation. He sued the teacher and school in 1993. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the statute of limitations, and the victim appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court. It began its opinion by noting that Minnesota law provides that “an action for damages based on personal injury caused by sexual abuse must be commenced within six years of the time the plaintiff knew or had reason to know that the injury was caused by the sexual abuse.” The court acknowledged that the victim may not have actually known that his injuries were caused by the abuse until within six years of the time he filed the lawsuit. But, it pointed out that the six year limitations period begins to run not only when a victim has actual knowledge that his injuries were caused by acts of child abuse but also when a victim has “reason to know” that his injuries were caused by the abuse. There could be no doubt, the court concluded, that the victim in this case had “reason to know” that his injuries were caused by the abuse for more than six years prior to the date he filed the lawsuit. As a result, the lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations. The court concluded that under the victim’s view that the statute of limitations should not begin to run until a victim has actual knowledge that his or her injuries were caused by the abuse

EXT no claim would ever be barred by the statute of limitations. All claimants would just keep insisting they did not know their injuries were caused by the sexual abuse. To avoid a flood of claims there must be a reasonable and definitive standard. The standard is objective, for there must be some definable guidelines for a court to apply when the victims insist they did not know the abuse caused their injuries. If the victim’s actions are such that a reasonable person in the victim’s situation should have known their [sic] injuries were caused by the abuse, their [sic] claim will be barred ….

EXT [The victim] argues … that he may have known he was abused but did not make the connection between his injuries and the abuse until 1992. We disagree. To the contrary, [he] testified that the abuse hurt him emotionally and that he knew that. His objective actions corroborate knowledge of the connection between the abuse and the emotional injuries complained of. [He] testified that he avoided [the teacher] throughout the 1973—74 school year. He left [the school] grounds many times during the 1973—74 school year because he did not want the abuse to continue. [He] told his parents he did not want to return to [the school]. Then he ran away from home … to avoid going back to [the school]. [He] testified that he never forgot the abuse. He thought of the abuse when bad things happened to him in later life. [He] testified that he used and exploited women because he felt used and exploited by the sexual abuse he incurred [at the school].

Based on these facts the court concluded that “the record conclusively establishes that [the victim] knew or should have known his injuries were caused by the sexual abuse.” This case illustrates the dilemma that adult survivors of child sexual abuse often face when they sue the offender (and his employer)—they must demonstrate that they were injured by the abuse, but doing so may result in the dismissal of their claim since it will trigger the statute of limitations. S.E. v. Shattuck—St. Mary’s School, 533 N.W.2d 628 (Minn. App. 1995). [ Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability—Defenses]

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