Statute of Limitations Bars Group’s Lawsuit

Seven adults, molested by a priest as children, attempted to sue their former church.

Church Law and Tax 1997-11-01

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 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.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that seven adults who were molested as children by parish priests were barred by the statute of limitations from suing the priests, their churches, and a diocese. Wisconsin law gives minor victims of sexual molestation until their 20th birthday to sue the perpetrator (a longer period applies in cases of incest). The victims in this case were all terribly molested over a number of years by priests in four separate parishes. Some of the victims were only 6 or 7 years of age when they were molested, while others were teenagers. Some claimed to have been molested on hundreds of occasions. They all sued the offending priests, as well as their church and diocese. They claimed that the churches and diocese were legally responsible for their injuries on the basis of negligent supervision, “apparent agency,” negligent training, negligent placement, and a failure to comply with child abuse reporting requirements. A trial court dismissed all of the victims’ claims on the ground that they were brought long after the statute of limitations had expired. The victims insisted that they were unable to file lawsuits by their 20th birthday, because they had “repressed” their memories of the priests’ wrongdoing and did not “discover” that their emotional damages were caused by the priests’ behavior until they sought professional counseling many years later.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that all of the victims’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations. The court began its opinion by observing that “the statute of limitations should not commence to run until the plaintiff discovers, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have discovered his or her injury and that the injury may have been caused by the defendant’s conduct.” The court noted that all of the victims knew the perpetrators, and knew that they had engaged in various sexual acts with them on multiple occasions. As a result, they “knew at least the identity of the responsible [person] and the nature of their injury no later than the time of the last sexual assault.” Did they also know and appreciate that their emotional injuries were caused by the priests’ misconduct? Yes, concluded the court. It categorically rejected the victims’ claim that they failed to “discover” the cause of their emotional injuries until many years after the statute of limitations had expired:

In cases where there has been an intentional … assault by one known to the plaintiff, and the plaintiff sustains actual harm at the time of the assault, the causal link is established as a matter of law. These plaintiffs knew the individual priests, knew the acts of sexual assault took place, and knew immediately that the assaults caused them injury. We therefore conclude that these plaintiffs discovered, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have discovered all the elements of their causes of action against the individual perpetrators at the time of the alleged assaults, or by the last date of the alleged multiple assaults.

The court rejected the victims’ claim that younger children should be given more time to file lawsuits because they view their abusers “with respect and reverence” and cannot discover the nature of their injuries until much later in adulthood. The court simply noted that younger children have longer until their 20th birthday to file a lawsuit, and so the statute of limitations “automatically” accounts for the fact that younger children need a longer time to determine the nature of their injuries and to decide whether or not they want to file a lawsuit.

The court acknowledged that 19 other states have extended the statute of limitations for victims of child molestation, but it concluded that any modification of the statute would have to be done by the state legislature. The court cautioned that extending the statute of limitations for child abuse victims creates formidable problems. For example, those persons and organizations that are sued by victims of child abuse will have a much more difficult time defending themselves. After all, how could a church defend itself against a 50—year—old’s accusation that he was molested by a volunteer worker in the church when he was 5 years old? A related concern is fraud-that is, extending the statute of limitations will encourage fraudulent claims. The court also rejected the victims’ claim that they had suffered from “repressed memory” and therefore were unable to file their lawsuits earlier. The court concluded that “a claim of repressed memory of past sexual abuse does not delay the accrual of a cause of action for … sexual assault, regardless of the victim’s [age] and the position of trust occupied by the alleged perpetrator.”

Application. This case will be a helpful to any church that is sued as a result of acts of child molestation occurring many years in the past. Note, however, that many states have enacted statutes that extend the period of time during which victims of child molestation may file a lawsuit. Also, courts in other states have reached this same result. Further, other courts have recognized “repressed memories” as a basis for delaying the statute of limitations until a victim of sexual misconduct “discovers” the connection between his or her emotional injuries and the prior misconduct. Doe v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 565 N.W.2d 94 (Wis. 1997). [ Negligence as a Basis for Liability—Defenses, Denominational Liability]

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