Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

A federal appeals court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented an adult male from suing a priest and Catholic archdiocese for injuries he suffered as a result of being sexually molested as a minor by the priest.

Ayon v. Gourley, 185 F.3d 873 (10th Cir. 1999)

Key point 10-16.4. The statute of limitations specifies the deadline for filing a civil lawsuit. Lawsuits cannot be brought after this deadline has passed. There are a few exceptions that have been recognized by some courts: (1) The statute of limitations for injuries suffered by a minor begins to run on the minor's 18th birthday. (2) 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. (3) The statute of limitations does not begin to run until an adult with whom a minister or church counselor has had sexual contact "discovers" that his or her psychological damages were caused by the inappropriate contact. (4) The statute of limitations is suspended due to fraud or concealment of a cause of action. Negligence as a Basis for Liability

A federal appeals court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented an adult male from suing a priest and Catholic archdiocese for injuries he suffered as a result of being sexually molested as a minor by the priest.

In 1997 an adult male ("John") sued a Catholic priest and archdiocese for injuries he allegedly suffered as a result of being molested as a child by the priest. John alleged that the molestation occurred on numerous occasions from 1981 through 1984. John sued the offending priest for "outrageous conduct" and the archdiocese for negligent hiring and supervision, breach of fiduciary duty, and conspiracy.

The archdiocese claimed that the case was barred by the statute of limitations and the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion. A federal district court dismissed the case against the archdiocese on the ground that any inquiry into church hiring or employment of priests would interfere with the archdiocese's right to free exercise of religion and excessively entangle the courts in church operations. The court also ruled that the statute of limitations barred John's claims. John appealed.

A statute of limitations specifies the deadline for filing a lawsuit. There were several statutes of limitation that potentially applied to John's claims, but the court concluded that all of them had expired by the time John filed his lawsuit in 1997. The court ruled that the statute of limitations on John's claims began to run when the claims "accrued," and that the claims accrued when John had "knowledge of facts which would put a reasonable person on notice of the nature and extent of an injury and that the injury was caused by the wrongful conduct of another." John insisted that his "injury" was emotional distress, and that he did not "connect" the injury to its cause until counseling therapy in 1997. The court disagreed:

[John] knew or should have known the alleged sexual abuse was wrong and "had sufficient knowledge concerning the existence of resulting psychological harm," at least in 1984, if not earlier. [John] was sixteen when the alleged abuse began in 1981 and almost twenty at the time of the last incident in 1984. In his affidavit, he admits being "embarrassed, humiliated, ashamed and fearful about what happened" and claims to have blamed himself. He also claims [the priest] threatened to kill him or his mother if he ever told anyone about the abuse.

Additionally, the original complaint alleges: "From the dates of the abuse to the present, and largely because of his abuse, the plaintiff has been continually subject to coercion, duress, religious duress, mental infirmity, disability and unsound mind as to the facts, conditions and circumstances surrounding his sexual abuse." The alleged threat by [the priest, plus John's] recognition that he was embarrassed and fearful, and his acknowledgment that he blamed himself show [that he] knew the wrongfulness of the alleged abuse. Moreover, to the extent [he] claims repression of the wrongfulness of the alleged encounters with [the priest], we conclude … that he should have known the wrongfulness of the acts.

A reasonable plaintiff of nineteen who felt fear and embarrassment and who allegedly received death threats stemming from the actions in question should have reasonably known of the wrongfulness of the actions. As for the injury, plaintiff admits that he suffered emotional distress at the time of the alleged incidents of abuse.

Thus [he] knew or should have known the wrongful nature of the act, the resulting injury, and the causal connection between the two. We therefore find that [John's] causes of action accrued in 1984 and the applicable statute of limitations periods expired, at the latest, in 1990. [His] causes of actions against the defendants are barred.

This is an important development. Many adult survivors of child sexual molestation have brought lawsuits many years (and in some cases decades) after their 18th birthdays, claiming that they had not "discovered" the nature and extent of their psychological harm until they sought professional counseling. The court in this case concluded that the statute of limitations on John's claims began to run when the claims "accrued," and that the claims accrued when he became aware of the nature of his emotional injuries and connected them to the actions of the priest and archdiocese.

The court rejected John's contention that his claims did not accrue until he received counseling in 1997 when he was nearly 35 years old. 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.

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