Time Limits Misconduct Suit

Court rules statute of limitations expired in sexual misconduct case.

Church Law and Tax 1996-09-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

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 Louisiana court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented a 26—year—old woman from suing her former church—operated school as a result of the sexual misconduct of her basketball coach. The victim attended a church—operated high school from 1982 through 1985, and participated on the school’s basketball team. She claimed that during these years her basketball coach subjected her to a “consistent pattern of sexual harassment and molestation.” She sued her former coach and school in 1993-some 8 years after the last incident of molestation, claiming that the coach’s acts had caused her intense suffering including serious depression, nightmares, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. From 1988 through 1993, she had been in some form of counseling or psychoanalysis almost continuously. She claimed that the school was responsible for her suffering on the basis of negligent supervision of the coach. The coach and school asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that it was barred by a one—year statute of limitations applicable to personal injury claims. A trial court agreed and dismissed the case. The victim appealed. She argued that she was “emotionally incapable” of suing her coach and school for several years following the molestation because she was unable to inform her parents of what had occurred and she could not pursue a lawsuit without their support. It was not until 1993 that she was able to disclose to her parents the coach’s actions, and receive their support. The lawsuit was filed immediately thereafter. The court appeals upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. It refused to extend the statute of limitations on account of the victim’s alleged inability to file a lawsuit earlier. The court observed: “In deposition she admitted that roughly a year and a half after the last incident she told her friend … what [the coach] had done; she also discussed it with another friend …. At that time she knew she had avenues of legal redress but elected not to pursue them. She disclosed the abuse to a therapist … in 1988 …. She told one [friend] that [the coach] should be in jail for what he did to her.” The court noted that the state supreme court in one case had recognized that the so—called “Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome” (CSAAS) causes some young children to delay disclosure of abuse, but this concept is limited to persons who were very young children when abused. Since the victim in this case was an adolescent at the time of her abuse, CSAAS would not be a defense to the statute of limitations. The court concluded:

While the [trial court] obviously took her plight seriously, the court was justifiably perplexed at this plaintiff. Her education and professional training were in the field of psychological treatment and she dealt with patients who like herself had been molested; she knew early on that she had been wronged, was aware of certain legal rights, and used an attorney for unrelated matters. When such a plaintiff contends she is emotionally unable to pursue her legal rights sooner than she did, the court has sound reason to reject the contention. Because of [the victim’s] educational background and her experience, the court was entitled to discredit her claimed psychological inability to sue.

There are 2 other aspects of this case that are of interest. First, the court rejected the victim’s claim that a 10—year statute of limitations applying to breach of contract claims should be applied in this case. The victim reasoned that the school’s catalog contained an implicit promise to provide students with a safe and wholesome environment, and that the school “breached” this promise. The court rejected this argument, noting that this case involved a personal injury rather than a contract dispute, and that the 10—year period for contract claims only applied in the absence of some other stated period. Since state law prescribed a one—year period for personal injury claims, this shorter period took priority over the 10—year contract rule. Second, the court pointed out that the state legislature had modified the statute of limitations period in cases involving the abuse of minors, but this change occurred after this lawsuit was filed and accordingly did not apply. Harrison v. Gore, 660 So.2d 563 (La. App. 1995). [ Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability]

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