• 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 is suspended if a church “actively conceals” the basis for a lawsuit from a victim. But some courts have ruled that when a pastor molests a child, the pastor’s “active concealment” of his behavior cannot be imputed to his church. As a result, the statute of limitations for suing the church is not suspended by the pastor’s actions.
• 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 Washington state court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented an adult male from suing his church and a denominational agency for injuries he suffered as a child when he was molested by his pastor. A church hired a new pastor in 1985. Within a few months, the pastor became close friends with a married couple in the church. The pastor helped the wife to obtain a job as church secretary. Later in 1985, the couple’s 14-year-old son (the “victim”) was sexually molested by the pastor on a camping trip. The victim felt “humiliated, embarrassed, scared.” After the first incident, the victim began having recurring nightmares about the sexual abuse, but he did not tell anyone. The sexual abuse continued regularly for the next four years. On one occasion, when they were supposed to be at a church function, the pastor took the victim to a hotel room, where he molested him. The abuse also occurred in the pastor’s home, at the church, and in automobiles. During those four years, the victim believed that the sexual abuse was wrong and that it was causing him harm, but he was unable to stop it. On at least one occasion, when the pastor tried to abuse him in a motel room, the victim begged him to stop because “it is killing me.” During the period of sexual abuse, the victim made three suicide attempts. On one of these occasions the pastor began to molest the victim while the victim was driving a car. The victim accelerated and drove the car into a tree to stop the emotional pain caused by the pastor’s abuse. The victim did not tell his parents that the pastor had abused him until 1993 (three years after the pastor left the church). He was reluctant to tell his parents because he felt scared and humiliated and because the pastor had told him not to tell anyone. Once the pastor warned him that people were “asking questions” and investigating and that he must not tell anyone. He reminded the victim of what would happen if he disclosed the abuse-the pastor would lose his family and his job, and the victim’s mother would lose her job as church secretary.
The victim’s parents became increasingly concerned that something was seriously wrong with their son. They were also concerned about the amount of time their son was spending with the pastor. They suspected that the pastor was molesting their son, but they could not prove it and their son refused to acknowledge it. In 1990, the victim’s parents made a formal complaint to their church, insisting that the church investigate the pastor. To support their complaint, the parents submitted a letter alleging several specific incidents of misconduct. In response to this letter the church board conducted a hearing and took written and oral testimony from a number of witnesses. Because of concerns related to his previous suicide attempts, the parents did not tell their son about the hearing nor did they ask him to testify. Since the victim did not come forward at the hearing, the church board took no action against the pastor.
In 1993 the victim and his parents sued the pastor. They also sued their church and a denominational agency, alleging negligent hiring, supervision, and investigation of the pastor. The trial court dismissed the church and denominational agency from the lawsuit on the ground that the statute of limitations had expired. The court allowed the victim to sue the pastor under a more liberal statute of limitations that applies to suits brought against the actual perpetrators of sexual abuse. The victim and his parents appealed, and a state appeals court agreed that the lawsuit against the church and denominational agency was barred by the statute of limitations. The court noted that under Washington law the victim had until his twenty-first birthday to sue the church and denominational agency for the sexual abuse that occurred while he was a minor. Since the lawsuit was not filed until the victim was twenty-two, it was filed too late.
The Discovery Rule
The victim and his parents insisted that the court should apply the “discovery rule,” which in some states postpones the statute of limitations until a victim of child sexual abuse “discovers” that his emotional injuries are associated with the abuse. The court noted that even if it applied the discovery rule, the lawsuit was still filed too late:
The common law discovery rule would not apply to [the victim’s] claims against the local church and the state office because the record clearly shows, and the trial court so found, that while still a minor [he] clearly knew the facts of the abuse relevant to establish a claim …. [He] knew he was being sexually molested by [his pastor] …. He knew the molestation was wrong, knew it was causing him substantial harm, as he attempted suicide.
The court conceded that the statute of limitations may be suspended or postponed when “plaintiffs could not have immediately known of their injuries due to … concealment of information by the defendant.” The victim’s parents claimed that the statute of limitations did not begin to run on their claims until 1993 when their son told them the pastor had molested him. The parents argue that before this conversation they could not have learned of their cause of action. The court disagreed, noting that while there was substantial evidence that the pastor concealed important information from the parents and from the church, “there is no evidence that the local church or the state office concealed anything from the [parents].” Further, the court noted that the statute of limitations would have begun to run no later than July of 1990, when the parents submitted their letter to the church demanding an investigation of the pastor. This letter proved that by July of 1990 the parents had a concrete belief that the pastor had abused their son and that the church and denominational office were partly to blame. The court noted that the 1990 letter listed several specific instances of abuse perpetrated upon their son by the pastor. Further, “even if the parents did not have a reasonable suspicion of the facts supporting their claims, they have not shown that, with due diligence, they could not have known of their cause of action before 1990 …. In sum [the parents] have not shown that they did not know, and could not have known, of their causes of action against [the pastor], the local church, and the state office before 1990.”
Application. This case illustrates an important principle-when a pastor molests a child, the pastor’s “active concealment” of his behavior cannot be imputed to his church. As a result, the statute of limitations for suing the church is not suspended by the pastor’s actions. The victim may sue the pastor directly, but not the church. E.R.B. v. Church of God, 950 P.2d 29 (Wash. App. 1998). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]
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