Suit Against Greek Orthodox Priest Dismissed

Statute of limitations had expired.

Church Law and Tax 1993-03-01 Recent Developments

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Staff

Key point: In some states, minors who are molested by clergy or church workers will be prevented from suing their church if they fail to sue before the “statute of limitations” expires (note, however, that the statute of limitations generally does not begin to “run” until the minor reaches legal age).

A New York state court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented an adult survivor of alleged childhood sexual abuse from suing her church. A woman alleged that she had been sexually seduced (while a minor) by her Greek Orthodox priest over a period of five years. Several years later, as an adult, she sought psychiatric treatment claiming that she had become anorexic. The archdiocese paid some of her initial medical expense, but later informed the woman that payments for further psychiatric and medical expenses would cease. The woman then sued the archdiocese for $20 million, alleging that it was legally responsible for the priest’s alleged sexual misconduct, and claiming that it had “breached its contract” to pay all of her psychiatric expenses. The court characterized the woman’s charges as follows: “[The priest], using the charisma of Rasputin and the mesmerizing power of a Svengali, seduced her as a young parishioner and held her in thrall for several years, and when she broke free, she was coerced into silence by the church hierarchy.” The priest and archdiocese vigorously denied the woman’s allegations. According to the priest, the woman was a neurotic and lovesick girl with a “crush” who persisted in misunderstanding his fatherly advice, and tried to force herself on him. The court began its opinion in this difficult case with the following observation: “Whatever the truth about these conflicting charges, whether it be sexual dominance by the priest or unrequited passion by a spurned young parishioner seeking vengeance, it is clear that these charges of events five or six years before the [filing of the lawsuit] would ordinarily be barred by the statute of limitations.” The “statute of limitations” specifies the time period during which a lawsuit must be brought. The woman argued that it would be unfair to bar her lawsuit on the basis of the statute of limitations, since the payment of some of her psychiatric expenses by the archdiocese had caused her to delay filing a lawsuit. The court rejected this argument, noting that the archdiocese had quit paying these expenses five years before the lawsuit was filed. Accordingly, the court concluded that the statute of limitations barred the woman from suing the archdiocese, since her lawsuit was filed long after the statute expired (even assuming that it did not begin to “run” until she reached her eighteenth birthday, the age of majority under state law). The court also rejected the woman’s claim that the archdiocese, by paying part of her medical expenses, had entered into a binding contract to pay all of her medical expenses and damages. The court observed: “The payment of relatively small sums to help the woman cannot, without more, be enlarged into an undertaking to cover her very substantial medical expenses for anorexia and for psychiatric treatment as well as for her college education, extending indefinitely. The making of some payments cannot be construed as an implicit promise to keep making them indefinitely.” The court concluded that there “is no enforceable contract,” and that while the woman apparently had suffered anguish and frustration, “it is equally clear that no cause of action will arise at law for disappointment and frustrated expectations.” This ruling is important for two reasons. First, it illustrates that in some states minors who are molested by clergy or church workers will be prevented from suing their church if they fail to sue before the “statute of limitations” expires. Note that the statute generally does not begin to “run” until the minor reaches legal age (often one’s eighteenth birthday). A growing number of states have modified their statute of limitations (in the context of child molestation cases) so that it does not begin to run until the victim, as an adult, discovers that he or she was injured by the molestation—even if this occurs many years later. Second, the decision suggests that a church’s willingness to pay a portion of the medical or counseling expenses of a molestation victim does not necessarily create an irrevocable “contract” to pay for all of such expenses. This is an important point. Churches often respond to incidents of molestation by agreeing to pay the victim’s initial counseling fees. Often, these commitments are very general, and do not specify how long such payments will continue. Are churches that make these commitments forever binding themselves to pay all of the victim’s counseling expenses, however expensive or protracted? This court emphatically said no, and while this decision is not binding on any court outside of New York, it is still a useful precedent that may be persuasive to courts in other states. Gallas v. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, 587 N.Y.S.2d 82 (Sup. 1989).

See Also: Seduction of Counselees and Church Members | Negligent Selection | Cases Finding Denominations Not Liable

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