Sexual misconduct by clergy, lay employees, and volunteers
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.
* The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the statute of limitations barred a woman’s claims against her church and denomination as a result of a sexual relationship that her pastor allegedly initiated with her. A woman ("Joan") sued her pastor, church, and a denominational agency, claiming that she had been injured by a sexual relationship the pastor had initiated without her "valid or knowledgeable consent." A denominational officer later contacted Joan and informed her that the pastor had admitted to his sexual relationship with her, and that the church would address the situation through an internal church mediation process that would be conducted in a fair, impartial, and confidential manner. Joan was later informed that the pastor had been placed on a paid leave of absence for six months and that the church had asked him to take steps to address his admitted misconduct. The church, however, offered no specific redress to Joan in response to her asserted "victimization." The pastor allegedly denounced her to the congregation in a letter the church allowed him to read from the pulpit, blaming her for causing him to stray from his ministry and his marital vows. Upon the expiration of his paid leave of absence, the church allowed the pastor to resume his duties without taking any further action to remedy his alleged wrongdoing or to redress Joan’s injuries. As a result, she claimed that the church allowed him to defame her and to blame her for his own misconduct, all of which led to her removal from the church. She claimed that the church defendants were responsible for the pastor’s misconduct and her injuries on the basis of the following theories: (1) negligent in hiring, supervising, and retaining the pastor; (2) agency; (3) breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and fraud; (4) fraudulent misrepresentation that Joan’s claims would be redressed through a fair, impartial, and confidential internal church mediation; and (5) infliction of emotional distress. Joan claimed that she "has suffered and continues to suffer severe emotional and psychological distress, anxiety, depression, humiliation, embarrassment and loss of self esteem, has incurred and will continue to incur expenses for medical, psychiatric and psychological treatment, therapy and counseling, is unable to perform her normal daily activities and obtain the full enjoyment of life, has lost her church, her self esteem and her spiritual center." A trial court dismissed all of Joan’s claims on the ground that she failed to bring her lawsuit within the three year statute of limitations for filing personal injury claims under state law.
Joan appealed. She insisted that she did not appreciate the full extent of her injuries during or immediately after ending her sexual relationship with the pastor, which concluded in 1995. As a result, she argued that the statute of limitations should not have begun to accrue when the relationship ended. She also claimed that the three-year statute of limitations for personal injuries should not have been applied to her claims for breach of contract, violation of fiduciary duties, and fraud.
The state supreme court noted that
a cause of action accrues and the applicable statute of limitations begins to run at the time of the injury to the aggrieved party. In some narrowly circumscribed factual situations, however, when the fact of the injury is unknown to the plaintiff when it occurs, the applicable statute of limitations will be tolled and will not begin to run until, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, the plaintiff should have discovered the injury or some injury-causing wrongful conduct …. If a reasonable person in similar circumstances should have discovered that the wrongful conduct of the defendant caused her injuries as of some date before the plaintiff alleged that she made this discovery, then the earlier date will be used to start the running of the limitations period.
Joan insisted that she did not "appreciate" the full nature and extent of her injuries at the time she first knew she had suffered harm because of the pastor’s sexual abuse. She attributes this lack of appreciation to the "exceptional undue influence by the pastor" that affected what she was able to understand and know. The court was not persuaded:
[Joan] has not alleged that she was … incapacitated when she suffered her alleged injuries …. Here [the denomination] notified Joan in early 1995 that [the pastor] had admitted his sexual misconduct and that the church defendants would engage in an internal mediation process in an attempt to address this situation. Thus, even if Joan had been uncertain before she communicated with [the denomination] about the impropriety of the pastor’s conduct, the church defendants made it very clear to her that they considered his conduct to be improper, but that, from their standpoint, this situation and the problems it raised would have to be resolved through the process of an internal church mediation. Notification to Joan of the results of that mediation process allegedly took place in May 1995, when she was told that the pastor would be placed on unpaid leave from his pastor’s job for six months and that he had been "requested to take certain steps to address his admitted misconduct." Thus, she was on notice in 1995 that the promised mediation had not resulted in her participation in the process, in any more substantial disciplinary measures against the pastor (much less in his permanent ouster as pastor), or in any redress whatsoever of her personal-injury claims. Yet she still failed to sue within three years of any of these dates. In short, her complaint shows that she should have known by the end of May 1995, at the latest, about the nature of her alleged injuries and the defendants’ role in causing them; nevertheless, she did not file her personal injury claims until more than three years later– after the statutory period for doing so had expired.
Joan also insisted that the church defendants were guilty of breach-of-contract, violation of a fiduciary duty, and fraud, and that the statute of limitations for these claims was ten years. She claimed that the church defendants breached their agreement to mediate her claims against the pastor and violated the fiduciary duties that they owed to her as a parishioner. She also alleged that because the church defendants misrepresented the church’s mediation process, and did so in bad faith, they should be prevented from invoking the personal-injury statute of limitations. Once again, the court disagreed, since all of these claims "wholly derived from and depended upon the prior existence of the personal-injury claims themselves."
The court concluded that even if Joan had filed her lawsuit before the three-year statute of limitations had expired, "it is unlikely that [a civil court] would have been able to review and adjudicate the church defendants’ alleged failure to conduct an internal church mediation in a fair, impartial, and confidential manner, as allegedly promised. Such a judicial inquiry inevitably would entangle the courts in interpreting, enforcing, or overruling church doctrine, thereby offending the free exercise clause of the first amendment to the United States Constitution as well as our own state constitutional guaranty of "full liberty in religious concernments …. Here, as alleged in this complaint, the internal mediation process of the church defendants involved a religious disciplinary proceeding that was a matter of ecclesiastical cognizance. For the courts to question such a proceeding, much less to consider overturning its protocols and processes as somehow violating Joan’s secular rights, would be to interfere unduly" with the defendants’ constitutional rights.
Application. This case is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the difficulty that adult victims of sexual misconduct experience in successfully suing churches after the statute of limitations has expired. Second, the court summarily rejected Joan’s claims that the church defendants had injured her by not properly investigating or resolving her allegations of pastoral misconduct. Any inquiry by the civil courts into such procedures, the court concluded, would violate the first amendment. Martin v. Howard, 784 A.2d 291 (R.I. 2001).
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