Statute of Limitations and Victims of Abuse

Minors who were abused by clergy may not sue after the statute of limitations expires.

Church Law and Tax 1994-07-01 Recent Developments

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 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. Other states do not recognize this so-called “discovery rule.”

An Indiana state court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented two adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse from suing the ministers who allegedly abused them. In 1960, two girls (8 and 9 years of age) were placed as wards in a children’s home affiliated with a church. The girls remained in the home for nearly 9 years. While in the home, the girls were repeatedly molested by an ordained minister who served as activities director. The molestation included repeated acts of sexual intercourse. The minister frequently gave the girls quinine pills which caused severe vomiting, bleeding, and diarrhea, in at effort to induce abortions. The girls also were molested by a second ordained minister who was superintendent of the home. The abuse caused the girls to develop severe psychological distress, which manifested itself in the form of shame, guilt, self-blame, denial, depression, nightmares, and ultimately disassociation from their experiences. Through these coping mechanisms the girls were unable to comprehend that they suffered damages as a result of the abuse. Thirty years later, in 1990, both girls experienced several “flashbacks” of the abuse. It was at this time that the victims began to realize that many of their nightmares were in fact true. The victims separately confronted the ministers. The former activities director admitted to having molested the girls “hundreds of times.” The former superintendent also admitted his acts of abuse. The victims filed a lawsuit against the ministers and the children’s home in 1990. The victims alleged that the ministers were guilty of sexual battery, clergy malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They alleged that the children’s home was liable for the ministers’ acts on the basis of negligent hiring, negligent supervision, and negligent retention. The ministers and children’s home sought to have the lawsuit dismissed on the ground that the statute of limitations had expired many years before. A trial court ruled that the statute of limitations did not barr the lawsuit, and the case was appealed. A state appeals court agreed that the statute of limitations did not prevent the victims from suing, even though the abuse occurred thirty years before. The court acknowledged that the statute of limitations for personal injuries under Indiana law requires lawsuits to be commenced within two years “after the cause of action accrues.” It noted that this rule is subject to two exceptions. First, in cases involving injuries to minors, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the minor reaches his or her 21st birthday. Second, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that the statute of limitations does not begin to run in any case involving personal injury until the victim “knew, or in the exercise of ordinary diligence, could have discovered that an injury had been sustained as a result of the tortious act of another.” The Indiana appeals court observed: “In the case before us the plaintiffs have asserted both that they had repressed knowledge that a number of the acts had occurred such that they had no memory of the act having happened until 1990, and that while they were aware of other acts and of feelings of guilt, depression, low self-esteem, etc. they were without knowledge of any causative connection between their psychological and personality problems and the alleged molestations until 1990.” The court found the victims’ allegations of repressed memory sufficient to overcome the statute of limitations. However, it did acknowledge that “what knowledge each [victim] might be charged with based upon the exercise of ordinary care remains a disputed question of fact.” That is, the case was sent back to the trial court where the women would have to prove that they in fact could not have known prior to 1990, through the exercise of reasonable care, that they had suffered emotional injuries as a result of the acts of molestation that occurred when they were children.

This case illustrates the important fact that the statute of limitations does not necessarily shield churches and other religious institutions from liability for incidents of molestation that occurred many years ago. This is another reason for churches to implement effective screening procedures for any employee or volunteer who will work with minors. Shultz-Lewis Child & Family Services, Inc. v. Doe, 604 N.E.2d 1206 (Ind. App. 3 Dist. 1992).

See Also: Negligence as a Basis for Liability – Defenses

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