Woman Sues Church Over Molestation by Former Pastor

Her lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations.

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01

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.”

An Indiana court ruled that an adult female who was molested by her former pastor was prevented from suing her church by the statute of limitations. The victim was born to a large family in 1968. A high achiever, she was elected president of her class all four years of high school and ultimately graduated as valedictorian. The victim began seeing a minister in her church for counseling when she was sixteen. The minister was a married man about twice the victim’s age. The minister soon abused the counseling relationship to manipulate the victim into having a sexual relationship with him. He claimed that having sexual intercourse with him would be “therapeutic,” and assured her that it was an appropriate part of the counseling process. The sexual relationship continued until the victim was twenty years old. The minister convinced her that they had a “love” relationship. Through domination and manipulation, he persuaded her to keep the sexual relationship secret.

The victim was aware that the minister was married and that her sexual relationship with him was prohibited by church teaching. She was also aware that her parents and others would not approve and would have believed that the minister was harming her. Nevertheless, she kept the sexual relationship secret because she understood that the minister might lose his job or even be arrested if found out. While attending college, the victim would skip classes and tests to be with the minister, despite the adverse effect upon her grades. Even after the sexual relationship ended, the minister continued to exert domination and control over the victim by expressing his love and affection for her.

The victim continued to suffer from depression and sought professional help in 1988. During the next few years, she received counseling and medical attention from several different health care professionals. These professionals were unanimous in their opinion that the victim’s relationship with the minister was destructive, and all encouraged her to end it. However, the victim continued to defend the minister and her “love” relationship with him and could not be persuaded to understand or accept that the relationship was harmful to her. She eventually became suicidal, was hospitalized on four occasions, and received electroconvulsive therapies.

In 1991, the victim’s therapists held an intervention-type family meeting which was attended by her mother, father, and siblings. At this meeting, the victim was required to disclose that she had been having a sexual relationship with the minister. Neither of her parents, nor any other family member, had any previous knowledge of the sexual relationship. Her family reacted with outrage. About twenty months later, when the victim was twenty-five years old, she sued the minister claiming that he had committed sixty acts of sexual battery and rape against her. The lawsuit also named her church as well as state and national church agencies claiming that they were responsible for her injuries on the basis of negligent retention, training, and supervision of the minister.

An appeals court concluded that the lawsuit against the church defendants had to be dismissed on the ground that it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. Under Indiana law, lawsuits for personal injuries have to be brought within two years of the injury. The statute does not begin to run for a minor until his or her eighteenth birthday. However, Indiana, like many states, recognizes the so-called “discovery rule.” Under this rule, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until a plaintiff “knew or, in the exercise of ordinary diligence, could have discovered that an injury had been sustained as a result of the [wrongful] act of another.” The victim claimed that the minister exercised such domination and control over her that she did not discover that his actions were wrong and were harmful to her before the family meeting in 1991 when her therapists and family finally convinced her that the minister’s conduct had been abusive and that the minister’s actions were the cause of her depression and emotional injuries. As a result, the victim insisted that her lawsuit was brought within the two-year statute of limitations. The court disagreed. It observed:

Where the plaintiff understands the significance of the events and their moral character, a reasonable person would have known that she had been the victim of abuse and that her injuries had been caused by the abuse …. It is not possible that a reasonable person in her situation would discuss past instances of sexual abuse during a treatment session for severe psychological problems without understanding at some level that the past incidents had some connection to her current situation.

The court pointed out that the victim knew that her parents and others would not have approved of her sexual relationship with the minister and would have viewed the minister as harming her. Also, she admitted that she was aware that her sexual relationship with the minister was prohibited by church teaching, and that he might lose his job or be arrested if the conduct were discovered. Finally, she was repeatedly advised by her mental health care professionals that she was the victim of the minister’s abuse and that it was harmful to her emotional and mental health. The court concluded: “The sexual relationship ended in 1988 when [the victim] was twenty years old. It is not possible that a reasonable person in [her] position would not have understood, on some level, that the minister’s actions were wrong and had some connection to her current situation …. [W]e must conclude, as a matter of law, that in the exercise of ordinary diligence, [she] should have discovered that she had sustained injury as a result of [the minister’s] abusive acts in excess of two years before her lawsuit was filed. Accordingly, her action is time-barred.” Doe v. United Methodist Church, 673 N.E.2d 839 (Ind. App. 1996). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denomina tional Liability]

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