A Minnesota appeals court ruled that a 33—year—old adult’s lawsuit against a school counselor who molested him when he was 11 years old was not barred by the statute of limitations. The counselor expressed an interest in the victim, and visited him in his home on several occasions. He eventually asked the boy’s mother if he could take her son to a remote cabin that he owned. The mother agreed, and the counselor took the victim to the cabin several times. During these trips the counselor repeatedly raped the boy. Prior to these incidents, the victim had no childhood problems. He was a well—adjusted, active student who enjoyed school. His mother described him as having been, before the abuse, a bright, energetic child and a talented student. The victim’s behavior changed drastically after he became acquainted with the counselor. He skipped school, became involved with crime, and abused drugs and alcohol. He was transferred to a correctional institution, and never graduated from high school. He entered a chemical dependency program when he was 19, but continued to abuse alcohol until he was 28. The victim never discussed the abuse with his mother or anyone else, because he was embarrassed and ashamed and thought of himself as a “bad person.” When the victim was 22 years old he unexpectedly encountered the counselor again when the counselor and a young boy entered his place of employment. The victim became enraged and “freaked out” because he suspected that the counselor was molesting the young boy. He did not explain to his co—workers the reason for his reaction. In 1991, when he was 32 years old, the victim came across a man who had attended elementary school with him. They began talking about their school days, and problems they had experienced since school. The man informed the victim that he had been molested by the counselor, and that he associated most of his problems with the molestation. This revelation was a “spark” that enabled the victim to realize that the counselor’s acts of molestation may have caused his own behavioral problems. He sued the counselor the next year, along with his former school. A trial court threw the case out on the ground that it had been filed after the “statute of limitations” had expired. Under Minnesota law, an adult may bring a lawsuit for incidents of molestation when they were minors if they do so within six years of the time they “knew or had reason to know that the injury was caused by the sexual abuse.” The court ruled that the victim failed this test, since he knew more than six years prior to filing his lawsuit that he had been molested and that his problems were connected to the molestation. The victim appealed, and a state appeals court reversed the trial court’s ruling and ordered the case to proceed to trial. The appeals court concluded that there was ample evidence that the victim did not associate his behavioral problems with the abuse until 1991 when he met with the former student. The court observed:
EXT [T]here is no overwhelming evidence that [the victim] should have known prior to 1986 [six years before filing the lawsuit] that [the counselor’s] abuse caused his injuries …. [He testified] that he did not discuss the abuse with anyone from the time of the abuse in 1970 until his meeting with [the other student] in 1991 …. There is no evidence that [he] discussed the abuse with family members, with clergy, or with counselors. He told his mother in 1970 that [the counselor] did something wrong, but he did not explain that he was sexually abused …. His physician submitted a letter stating that until his meeting with [the other student] in 1991, [the victim] did not have a “full understanding that the effects of sexual abuse had been more far—reaching in his life than a simple physical experience.” The physician also stated that it seems unreasonable that a child would be able to perceive the effects of abuse from the same level of understanding as an adult …. [A] reasonable adolescent boy … could be expected to repress thoughts of the abuse during childhood and refuse to disclose it for several years. This is because psychological reactions to childhood sexual abuse … may inhibit [a victim] from recognizing the effects of the abuse …. The severity of these reactions may depend on the age of the victim and the nature of the abuse. Psychological injuries caused by sexual abuse are different from injuries suffered by victims of other torts. Sexual abuse victims are more likely to repress memories of the abusive incident ….
The court concluded that “the evidence does not establish conclusively that [the victim] knew or should have known prior to 1986 that [the counselor’s] sexual abuse of him caused his injuries. It is undisputed that prior to 1986 [the victim] did not discuss the abuse or receive counseling. In the absence of contrary evidence, a [jury] could infer, based on the age of [the victim] at the time of the abuse, on the nature of the abuse, and on the nature of his injuries, that he acted reasonably.”
This case illustrates two important principles. First, in many states (whether by statute or court decisions) the statute of limitations on child abuse claims does not begin to run until the adult survivor knows or has reason to know that his or her psychological injuries are associated with the abuse. This may be many years after the actual abuse occurred, meaning that churches face potential liability for such actions for extended periods of time. Second, the court emphasized that the age of the victim at the time of the abuse is critical in determining whether or not the statute of limitations should be extended. The older the child at the time of the abuse, the more willing the courts have been to delay the statute of limitations. The court referred to another case involving an older teenager in which a court refused to delay the statute of limitations. The older the victim, the less likely a court will conclude that the victim remained unaware for many years that his or her injuries were caused by the abuse. Blackowiak v. Kemp, 528 N.W.2d 247 (Minn. App. 1995). [ Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability—Defenses]
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