Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers – Part 4

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that an adult woman was barred by the statue of limitations from suing a priest and his religious order for injuries she suffered.

Church Law and Tax2001-05-01

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.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that an adult woman was barred by the statue of limitations from suing a priest and his religious order for injuries she suffered as a result of over 900 separate incidents of sexual abuse committed by the priest when she was a child. The victim was born in 1964 and alleged that the acts of molestation occurred when she was between 8 and 15 years of age. She claimed that it was not until 1994, when she was 30 years old, that she realized that the priest’s actions had caused her injuries. It was at this time that she sued the priest and his religious order. She claimed that the order had been aware the priest had engaged in similar misconduct with another girl and that it was negligent or reckless in failing to prevent the abuse from occurring in this case. A trial court dismissed the case on the ground that it was barred by the statute of limitations (which required the lawsuit to be filed no later than the victim’s 20th birthday). A state appeals court reversed this ruling, noting that the so-called “discovery rule” should apply in cases of repressed memories of child sexual abuse. It concluded that under the discovery rule the statute of limitations did not begin to run until the victim “discovered” that her injuries were caused by the priest’s misconduct. She did not make this discovery until she was 30, and she filed her lawsuit shortly thereafter, so her claims were not barred by the statute of limitations. The priest and his religious order asserted that even if the discovery rule applied, the victim’s claims were still barred since she knew of her injuries long before she filed her lawsuit. The state supreme court ruled that the discovery rule did not apply, and that the victim’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations since they were filed too late.

The court noted that under the discovery rule “a party’s cause of action accrues when the party knows or reasonably should know of an injury and that the injury was wrongfully caused.” The victim claimed that it was not until 1994 that she “realized that the sexual encounters with [the priest] had caused her injuries.” Prior to 1994 she claimed that she did not know that the priest’s behavior was abnormal. A psychologist she saw in 1994 concluded that “because of the particular circumstances of [the victim’s] early life and the nature of the abuse perpetrated by [the priest] there is good reason to believe that she was unable to comprehend that the tragic course that her life was on, until quite recently, was, at least in part, due to what the priest did to her.”

The court, in rejecting the application of the discovery rule, concluded:

The allegations of the plaintiff’s complaint make it clear that [she] had sufficient information about her injury and its cause to require her to bring suit long before the date of discovery alleged in the complaint. [She] does not argue that she repressed her memories of the abuse, and the allegations in the complaint indicate that [she] was aware of the abuse as it occurred. From the chronology set forth in [her lawsuit] it appears that the abuse began when [she] was eight or nine years old, and that it continued for about seven years, until the plaintiff was 15 or 16 …. The plaintiff reached the age of majority in 1982. She did not bring the present action until 1996, when she was nearly 32 years old. Given the allegations in the [lawsuit], which show that the plaintiff was always aware of the misconduct charged, and the absence of any contrary assertion that the plaintiff repressed memories of the abuse, we believe that the plaintiff’s action must be considered untimely under the discovery rule …. The plaintiff does not contend that she repressed memories of the abuse allegedly committed by [the priest], or that she was not aware that his misconduct was harmful. Rather, [she] asserts that she did not discover, until years later, the full extent of the injuries she allegedly sustained as a result of the childhood occurrences …. [H]owever, a plaintiff’s failure to learn the full extent of the injuries caused by the defendant’s acts will not toll the statute of limitations.

Application. The court refused to apply the “discovery rule.” 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. Clay v. Kuhl, 727 N.E.2d 217 (Ill. 2000).

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