The Importance of the Statute of Limitations

Recent case illustrates power of statute of limitations.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01

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. However, a lawsuit will be barred by the statute of limitations even under the so—called “discovery rule” if it can be demonstrated that the victim failed to file the lawsuit within the time period prescribed by the statute of limitations following the “discovery” that his or her injuries were caused by the molestation.

A Louisiana court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented an adult woman from suing a Catholic diocese for a priest’s acts of molestation when the woman was a minor. The woman sued the diocese claiming that it was responsible for a priest’s molestation of her in 1961 when she was 15 years of age. The applicable Louisiana statute of limitations for incidents of child abuse is 1 year beginning on the child’s 18th birthday. The woman claimed that this period should not begin until she discovered that her emotional suffering was caused by the prior act of molestation. The court declined the woman’s request. The court concluded:

It is clear to us from the testimony that [the woman] recalled the events giving rise to the [lawsuit against the diocese] and knew that it was wrong for [the priest] to engage in such activities. Although the alleged mental and physical abuse administered to [the woman] while under the control of [the priest] may have affected a clear, precise recollection of specific acts of sexual abuse, [the woman] was admittedly aware and cognizant of the abuse once she was out of the control of [the priest]. However, suit was not filed until … some 25 years after [her] last contact with [the priest].

The court also pointed out that the woman discussed with others the possibility of filing a lawsuit more than a year before doing so, and this further demonstrated that she was aware of her injuries more than a year before the lawsuit was filed. The court concluded: “[The woman] clearly remembered the alleged abuses suffered at the hands or direction of [the priest]. She was not unable to act, but chose not to do so and allowed her claim to [lapse]. Sympathy we share for the victim of [the priest’s] misconduct. The suffering she endured and will continue to endure as a consequence of his unholy acts warrants retribution. With heavy hearts, however, we must affirm the trial court’s judgment [dismissing the case].” Doe v. Roman Catholic Church, 656 So.2d 5 (La. App. 3 Cir. 1995). [ Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

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