Recent Developments in Texas Regarding Child Abuse

A Texas court ruled that a 23-year-old male who was molested by a church music director when he was a minor was barred by a 2-year statute of limitations from suing his church, and that the church could not be sued as a result of the failure of 5 pastors to report the alleged abuse to civil authorities.

Church Law and Tax1998-03-01

Child Abuse

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.”

Key point. Persons who are mandatory reporters of child abuse under state law may be criminally prosecuted for failure to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of abuse. However, they may not be subject to liability in a civil lawsuit seeking money damages.

A Texas court ruled that a 23—year—old male who was molested by a church music director when he was a minor was barred by a 2—year statute of limitations from suing his church, and that the church could not be sued as a result of the failure of 5 pastors to report the alleged abuse to civil authorities. A 12—year—old boy (the “victim”) was allegedly sexually molested by the director of children’s music at his church. At first, the victim told no one of the incident. However, a few years later he told 5 different pastors of his church about the alleged sexual assault. The pastors did not notify law enforcement officials, the Texas Department of Human Services, or the victim’s parents. Over the years the victim suffered some emotional problems, which he claimed were the direct result of the molestation and the inadequate response by the church’s pastors. When he was 19 years old, the victim’s psychological problems became severe, and he began receiving counseling. The counselor learned of the allegations of sexual abuse and the pastors’ failure to respond to them. A short time later the victim was hospitalized for depression and anxiety attacks. A psychiatrist diagnosed the victim as suffering from chronic and severe post traumatic stress disorder. When he was 23 years of age, the victim sued his church alleging that it was liable for a “continuing course of conduct” which included not only the sexual assault but also the rejection by church officials of his cries for help. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the victim had failed to file his lawsuit within the 2—year statute of limitations period mandated by state law. The court noted that under the applicable statute of limitations the victim had to bring a lawsuit no later than 2 years after the date his cause of action accrued. The court noted that in general a cause of action “accrues” when a wrongful act causes a legal injury, even if the injury is not “discovered” until later. However, the statute of limitations does not begin to “run” for a person who was a minor at the time of an injury until his or her 18th birthday. Since the victim in this case was a minor when the injuries occurred, he had until his 20th birthday to file a lawsuit. And, since he did not file his lawsuit until he was 23 years old, his claims were barred by the statute of limitations.

The victim appealed, arguing that the trial court should have applied the “discovery rule.” The discovery rule applies in limited situations “where the wrongful act and resulting injury are inherently undiscoverable at the time they occurred but may be objectively verified.” In such cases, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the victim “knows, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should know, of the wrongful act and injury.” The victim in this case argued that he was not aware until he was at least 22 years of age that his psychological problems were related to the actions of the pastors who failed to report his claims of abuse, and therefore his lawsuit was permitted under the discovery rule. The appeals court disagreed. It noted that the discovery rule does not apply unless “the alleged wrongful act and resulting injury were inherently undiscoverable at the time they occurred.” The court did not believe that this requirement was met in this case:

Whether or not [the victim] made the complicated connection between the church’s conduct and his psychological condition is of no moment because neither the wrongful acts nor the injuries asserted in this case are inherently undiscoverable. In fact, both had rather obvious manifestations long before the limitations period expired. Moreover [the victim] does not argue that he was unaware of the wrongful acts. In addition, he does not contend he was unaware of the psychological and emotional injuries which resulted from those acts. Because [he] was clearly aware of both the wrongful acts and the injury in this case, the [discovery rule does not apply].

The court also rejected the victim’s argument that “public policy” supported the application of the discovery rule to this case: “The discovery rule is limited in application by the inherent undiscoverability element. We will not expand it to include those cases in which the [victim] is fully aware of the act and the injury but has failed to make the causal connection between the two.”

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the court addressed the victim’s argument that the church’s conduct constituted a “continuing tort”. Specifically, the victim alleged that because the church failed to report his abuse to the proper authorities, it violated the state’s child abuse reporting law. The victim insisted that each day church officials failed to report the abuse constituted “a new wrongful act,” initiating a new limitations period. Again, the court disagreed. It noted that the state child abuse reporting statute is “punishable by criminal penalties,” and that “nothing in the statute indicates that it was intended to create a private cause of action.” Further, even if the statute did create a private cause of action, such an action would not be available in this case:

The statute only creates a duty to report the abuse or neglect of a child. Thus, the church’s duty to report the molestation of [the victim] no longer existed as of the day he turned eighteen …. Otherwise, application of this statute would have unintended results. Under [the victim’s] argument, if a sixty year old woman reveals to her minister that she was abused as a child some fifty years ago, this minister could be either prosecuted or sued for failing to report the abuse to the proper authorities. We decline to adopt [this] interpretation that this statute was intended to apply to an instance of past childhood abuse when the victim has attained the age of majority and is no longer in need of this statutory protection.

Application. The most important aspect of this case to church leaders is the court’s conclusion that a church cannot be liable in a civil lawsuit for failing to comply with a child abuse reporting law. If the victim’s allegations in this case are true, then at least 5 members of the church’s pastoral staff were aware of the victim’s claims that he had been molested by the children’s music director. For whatever reason, they chose not to report these allegations to civil authorities as required by state law. Many pastors have found themselves in a similar situation. They receive reports of child molestation, and they are mandatory reporters of child abuse under applicable state law, but they decide not to report it. While such a decision exposes a pastor or other church leader to potential criminal liability under state law (if he or she is a mandatory reporter of child abuse under the statute), it may not expose the person or the church to civil liability in a lawsuit seeking money damages. That was the conclusion of this court, and while it is of no direct relevance outside the state of Texas, it at least can be cited as existing precedent. The court’s conclusion should be stressed again-the child abuse reporting statute only creates a duty to report the abuse of a child. As a result, the church’s duty to report the molestation of the victim no longer existed as of the day he turned eighteen.

The other aspect of this case that should be noted is the court’s refusal to apply the “discovery rule”. Most courts have reached a similar conclusion, and have refused to allow adults to sue for acts of child molestation-especially if they were adolescents at the time of the molestation. It is very difficult for such persons to convince a court that they were previously unaware of the wrongful acts or of their own injuries. Marshall v. First Baptist Church, 949 S.W.2d 504 (Tex. App. 1997). [Failure to Report Child Abuse, Negligence as a Basis for Liability—Defenses]

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