Sexual Misconduct and Fraudulent Concealment

In certain cases, the statute of limitations may not apply.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

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 if church or denominational officials “fraudulently conceal” relevant information from a molestation victim.

The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that the statute of limitations for bringing a lawsuit for acts of sexual molestation may be suspended or delayed through “fraudulent concealment” by a denominational agency of the incidents. A former altar boy sued a priest and diocese in 1992 for the priest’s acts of molestation that occurred over a 17 year period from 1958 through 1975. The victim claimed that it was not until 1991, in the course of counseling, that he realized that he had been a victim of abuse. The court ruled that the statute of limitations would not be a bar to this lawsuit if the diocese fraudulently concealed from the victim the incidents of abuse, since the statute of limitations is “suspended” under these circumstances. The court concluded that there was evidence that the diocese fraudulently concealed from the victim information concerning the incidents. It referred to (1) a letter from the offending priest to his bishop responding to accusations made against him by another priest concerning “young people”; (2) the victim, before he graduated from high school, bartended parties for the bishop and several priests, and when the offending priest became drunk he would be openly affectionate to the victim in front of the other clergy; and (3) the abuse of the victim occurred over a 17 year period of time during which 17 different priests heard confessions regarding the incidents of molestation involving the victim. The court concluded that if the diocese in fact knew of the acts of molestation but did nothing to warn the victim or his family, then this amounted to “fraudulent concealment” of the victim’s cause of action that suspended the statute of limitations until he in fact discovered that his emotional injuries were caused by the abuse. Koenig v. Lambert, 527 N.W.2d 903 (S.D. 1995). [ Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

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