• 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. In some states clergy who fail to report an incident of child abuse cannot be sued by the victim for failing to report.
• Key point. In some states the child abuse reporting law does not require that persons report an incident of child abuse if the victim is no longer a minor.
In an important case that should be studied by church leaders everywhere, a Texas court ruled that (1) a church was not liable for a music director’s acts of child molestation since the statute of limitations had expired; (2) ministers who are mandatory child abuse reporters under state law cannot be sued by child abuse victims on account of their failure to report; and (3) ministers need not report child abuse if the victim no longer is a minor. A 12—year—old boy was sexually molested by the children’s music director at his church. At first, the victim told no one. However, over the next few years the victim told 5 pastors in his church about the molestation. Although pastors are “mandatory reporters” of child abuse under Texas law, none of them reported the allegations to civil authorities or to the victim’s parents. The victim experienced severe emotional problems when he became an adult, and he went to a professional counselor. When he was 20 he was hospitalized for severe depression and anxiety attacks. A psychiatrist later diagnosed the victim as suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder. The victim sued his church when he was 23 years old. He claimed that the church was responsible for his injuries because of its “inadequate response” to his “cries for help,” and because of the failure by the 5 pastors to report the abuse to civil authorities.
Statute of limitations
The statute of limitations requires that persons file lawsuits within the period of time prescribed by statute. In Texas, the statute of limitations for personal injuries is two years. Since the statute does not begin to “run” for minors until their 18th birthday, the victim had until his 20th birthday to file his lawsuit. As noted above, he did not do so until he was 23. However, he insisted that the court should apply the so—called “discovery rule.” Under this rule the statute of limitations would not begin to run until the victim discovered that his injuries were caused by the incident of molestation. A state appeals court conceded that in rare cases the discovery rule may be applied-if the wrongful act and resulting injury are “inherently undiscoverable.” The court disagreed that this rule applied to this case. It pointed out that the victim’s injuries were not inherently discoverable. Quite to the contrary, he “was acutely aware of the sexual molestation incident involving [the music director]. In fact [he] reported the assault within three years after it occurred and continued to report it during the next several years, In addition, he was aware of the inaction of church officials following these reports. There is no question that [he] had discovered the wrongful acts.”
The court refused to apply the discovery rule “to 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.”
Liability for failing to report
The most important aspect of this case to church leaders was the court’s conclusion that the church was not liable for the victim’s injuries on account of the 5 pastors’ failure to comply with the state child abuse reporting law. Every state has a child abuse reporting law that lists those persons (“mandatory reporters”) who are legally required to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse to designated state agencies. A mandatory reporter’s failure to report child abuse can result in criminal penalties. The 5 pastors in this case were mandatory reporters under Texas law, and the victim claimed that their failure to report his allegations of abuse made them and the church legally responsible for his injuries. The court disagreed, noting that the state child abuse reporting law is a criminal statute and that “nothing in the statute indicates that it was intended to create a private cause of action.”
Reporting abuse when the victim no longer is a minor
The court addressed a question that has created untold confusion for ministers-should an incident of child abuse be reported if the alleged victim is no longer a minor? Let’s illustrate this problem with an example. Assume that during a counseling session a pastor learns that a 25—year—old woman was sexually or physically abused when she was a young child. If the pastor is a mandatory child abuse reporter under state law must the abuse be reported? The court in this case said no. It observed:
The [child abuse reporting] 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. [For example] 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 [the 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.
Legal effect of baptism
The victim made the novel claim that his baptism in the church gave rise to a “contractual relationship” between himself and the church, and that this “contract” imposed upon the church a duty to engage in a “healing ministerial resolution” of this dispute. The court rejected this basis for liability, noting that it had never before been recognized by any other court.
Application. This case will be a useful precedent for churches to cite when they are sued for incidents of child abuse occurring many years ago. Even more importantly, the case demonstrates that a failure by ministers to report child abuse will not necessarily result in civil liability-even for ministers who are mandatory reporters. Finally, the court addressed the important question of whether ministers should report incidents of child abuse when the victims are now adults. The court concluded that the purpose of the child abuse reporting statute (protecting minors from abuse) is not served when the victim is now an adult. As a result, there is no need to report the abuse. This is an important clarification for pastors, since it is not uncommon for them to receive information indicating that an adult was abused as a minor. Of course, a decision by a Texas appeals court is not binding in any other state. But this is one of the few cases to address this issue and so it may be given greater weight in other jurisdictions. For now, ministers and other church leaders should “play it safe” and seek the guidance of an attorney or representative of the state agency that receives child abuse reports when they learn that an adult was molested as a child. Refer them to this case or article for guidance. Marshall v. First Baptist Church, 949 S.W.2d 504 (Tex. App. 1997). [Failure to Report Child Abuse, Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability]
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