The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had to contend with a number of lawsuits directed against it by individuals who suddenly discovered one day that they had been abused decades before and just now decide to make a legal issue of it. Previous cases discussed on this blog include the case of Ferris Joseph, and the case of an unidentified Idaho man who, after suddenly "remembering" abuse after 40 years, targeted the LDS Church and the Boy Scouts with a $5 million lawsuit.
While I, by the grace of God, have never been in such a predicament and cannot pretend to understand the feelings of such victims, I find it extremely difficult to believe a person could wait decades after being sexually abused before making an issue of it. Facilitating such suits in the United States is a rule that the statute of limitations begins not at the time the abuse took place, but within three years after the victim first remembers it. This means that plaintiffs and defendants alike can be held hostage to quacks who practice the now-discredited "recovered memory therapy".
But in Australia, they define their statute of limitations more stringently and logically. As a result, a woman has just lost her bid to sue the LDS church after it allegedly failed to report to police that she had been sexually abused. Full story reported November 27th, 2008 by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Herald Sun. A November 17th story by The Australian provides additional background.
The 36-year-old unidentified woman claimed that a ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints in Ipswich, Queensland (just south of Brisbane) knew that she had been abused by her stepfather, a church elder who ran a youth group, between November 1986 and October 1989 when she was a teenager. During an earlier Supreme Court hearing, the woman claimed the church had breached its duty of care to her and sought damages for serious psychiatric problems she had developed as a result of the abuse. She was also seeking to extend the statute of limitations beyond its current point.
However, on November 27th, Justice Carolyn Simpson denied the woman the chance to sue as the statute of limitations for commencing court action had expired.
Here's what happened. When the victim was 16 years old, she told her mother that her stepfather had touched her and had sex with her. Her mother promptly reported it to the ward bishop, who convened a disciplinary tribunal which subsequently excommunicated the stepfather. In 1989, the family moved from Queensland to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, where the sexual abuse allegedly continued.
However, the woman did not report them to police until 1999.
Her stepfather was charged for the Queensland offences and sentenced in 2001 to a maximum of seven years' jail. He was also charged for the New South Wales offences, but the case did not proceed as the victim was unwilling to give evidence against him after the stepfather's biological daughter intimidated and threatened her. What apparently triggered the victim's interest in suing the LDS church was the fact that she only found out in 2004 that members of her church had been aware of the abuse all the time.
But Australia has a one year statute of limitations in such cases. Consequently, Justice Simpson ruled that a provision allowing plaintiffs to commence legal action up to one year after knowledge of pertinent facts supporting their case could therefore not be granted. The judge ruled that since the victim had all the necessary facts to launch a suit by October 28th, 2004, she should have filed no later than October 28th, 2005. Justice Simpson also declined to use her discretion in this case as she believed it to be difficult to prove that the church owed her a duty to contact police and that any breach could be directly related to her current psychiatric condition.
Justice Simpson dismissed the claim and ordered that the woman pay the bulk of the church's costs. Good decision by the judge; if you are victimized, you have an obligation to seek justice within the specified period of time.