Statute of Limitations Bars Sexual Abuse Lawsuit

Woman’s lawsuit seeking monetary damages for the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a youth ministry volunteer over several years was barred by the state statute of limitations

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.

An Illinois court ruled that a woman’s lawsuit seeking monetary damages for the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a youth ministry volunteer over several years was barred by the state statute of limitations.

A 5-year-old girl (the “victim”) and her family began attending a church. The victim became involved in the church’s children’s ministry. Beginning at the age of 11 or 12, she attended an overnight church camp in Wisconsin for approximately two weeks every summer.

A church member (the “defendant”) was a leader at the church in charge of the high school youth group. She met the victim when she was 12 or 13, but the two did not have regular contact until the victim joined the high school youth group when she was 14 years old. At that time, the victim saw the defendant at youth group meetings once a week, at church on Sundays, and for sporadic extracurricular activities.

In the summer of 1996, when the victim was 16, she attended an overnight church camp, where she was one of several youth group leaders for the younger members. The defendant was in charge of the leaders.

The defendant told the victim during a series of conversations that she was interested in pursuing a “discipleship” or mentoring relationship with her. The victim understood this to mean that the defendant wanted to read the Bible together and act as her teacher and spiritual adviser. The victim was aware that the defendant previously had a mentoring relationship with another youth group leader. The victim had seen the other leader in bed with the defendant at camp in the summer of 1993 or 1994, when the victim was 12 or 13. After the victim agreed to the discipleship, the defendant began lying in bed with her, cuddling her, and giving her back rubs.

When the victim returned from camp in August 1996, the defendant invited her to her parent’s house to watch a movie, at which time the defendant fondled her. The victim cried and pulled away, and the defendant, also crying, apologized. The victim later testified that she felt ashamed, surprised, and scared because she knew the touching was wrong. Although the defendant assured the plaintiff that it would not happen again, a month later, in the defendant’s car, the defendant moved her hand up the victim’s leg and kissed her. Again, the victim cried and the defendant apologized. From September to December 1996, the abuse occurred on at least ten occasions. In early 1997, the victim claimed that the defendant “sexually penetrated” her in the defendant’s parent’s house, which the victim knew was inappropriate. Over the next several years, the defendant continued to abuse the victim, often taking her to hotels when the defendant’s parents were home.

The victim claimed that the sexual abuse became less frequent when she began college and stopped altogether in 1999 when she was 20, because she “couldn’t take it anymore” and felt the defendant was no longer interested in being her spiritual adviser, but was using her for sex. At no point did the victim feel that her relationship with the defendant was consensual.

The victim did not report the defendant’s behavior while it was occurring because she was aware that when another minor made allegations against the defendant, the minor and her family had to leave the church, while the defendant remained. In addition, the defendant threatened to kill herself if the victim told anyone about the abuse.

In 1999, after the abuse had stopped, the victim received a phone call from a woman who asked her if the defendant ever tried to touch her inappropriately. She later called the other woman’s cousin and told her about the defendant’s abuse toward her. At around this same time, the victim began experiencing chronic anxiety, sadness, and nightmares. However, she claimed that she did not connect these feelings to the abuse until more than a decade later, when in 2012 she told her husband what she had suffered and began therapy. Her therapist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder arising out of the abuse.

The victim sued the defendant alleging negligence, battery, and emotional distress. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the statute of limitations had expired. The victim appealed.

The appeals court’s ruling

The appeals court quoted the relevant statute of limitations:

An action for damages for personal injury based on childhood sexual abuse must be commenced within 2 years of the day the person abused discovers or through the use of reasonable diligence should discover that the act of childhood sexual abuse occurred and that the injury was caused by the childhood sexual abuse.

The statute further provides that the limitations period does not begin to run until the victim of the abuse is 18 years old.

The defendant argued that the victim knew of the abuse and knew or should have known that her injury was caused by the abuse no later than 1999, shortly after she ended her relationship with the defendant. Therefore, the limitations period expired two years later in 2001. The court agreed:

First, the victim does not allege her memories of the abuse were repressed. Further, while she, too, denied awareness of the fact that the contact between her and the defendant was criminal, she admitted that she knew the contact was “wrong” and “inappropriate” at the time it was occurring. She elaborated that she did not believe her encounters with the defendant amounted to a consensual dating or sexual relationship. It is well-settled that under the discovery rule a plaintiff need not appreciate the criminality of the conduct at issue to be charged with knowledge that her injury was wrongfully caused. Finally … the victim, at the age of 20, informed a third party that the defendant had been “sexually inappropriate” with her. Indeed, she had considered reporting the defendant’s conduct earlier, but decided against it after remembering that another girl whom the defendant mentored made similar allegations that the defendant “inappropriately touched” her, only to end up leaving the church with her family. The victim also recalled that her youth group leader at the time ordered the members not to discuss those allegations. Taken together, and contrary to her argument on appeal, the victim’s testimony establishes that she knew of the defendant’s abuse at the time it occurred … .

The court then addressed the central issue of when the victim knew that her injuries were caused by the sexual abuse, and it concluded that the victim’s lawsuit itself, along with her own testimony, contained ample evidence that she was aware of the sexual abuse as it was occurring:

In the victim’s complaint, she states a claim for … infliction of emotional distress against the defendant, alleging that “as a direct result of [her] conduct” she “suffered and will continue to suffer … severe and permanent emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, embarrassment, and loss of self-esteem, humiliation and psychological injuries.” All these are injuries the victim testified she suffered immediately following the abuse. For example, she testified that after the defendant fondled her, she began crying and felt shame, fear, and embarrassment. These same reactions and feelings occurred whenever the defendant abused her. To be sure, she may not have realized that the persistent nightmares and ongoing emotional problems she experienced in her 20s were likewise attributable to the abuse, but it is not necessary that a plaintiff recognize the full extent of his or her injuries before bringing suit. Thus … the evidence reveals that the victim actually knew that a portion of her injury was caused by the abuse at the age of 16. And pursuant to [the statute of limitations] when she reached the age of 18, the statute of limitations began to run. The statute expired two years later, in 1999, well before she filed her complaint against the defendant in 2013.

Editor’s note: In August 2017, Illinois passed a bill that eliminated the statute of limitations for child sex abuse allegations.

What this means for churches

Most states have adopted some version of a “discovery rule” for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. These laws provide that the deadline for filing a lawsuit for childhood sexual abuse does not begin to run until a victim “discovers” his or her emotional damages and realizes that they were caused, to some extent, by the abuse. Such a law allows some adult survivors of child sexual molestation to sue many years (and in some cases decades) after their 18th birthday, claiming that they had not “discovered” the link between their emotional damages and the abuse until the recent past. But this case, and many others reported in this newsletter, demonstrate the difficulty child abuse survivors have of invoking the discovery rule. In this case, the court concluded that it was the victim’s own words, in her lawsuit and testimony, that defeated any reliance on the discovery rule. Her own words illustrated that she knew the defendant’s acts were both wrong and harmful, thereby negating the core requirement for invocation of the discovery rule. Doe v. Carlson, 71 N.E.3d 806 (Ill. App. 2017).

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