Court Weighs Church Abuse Suits
By Elizabeth Neff
The Salt Lake Tribune [Utah]
Downloaded July 28, 2003
In the first case of its kind, the Utah Court of Appeals will determine whether churches can be sued for failing to prevent members from sexually abusing children.
At issue is a state law that says child sexual abuse victims can bring a civil lawsuit "only against a living person who intentionally perpetrated the sexual abuse or negligently permitted the sexual abuse to occur." A judge cited the law in dismissing a complaint filed by a Utah woman and her son against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, writing that the church "is clearly not a 'living' person."
Although the church asked the Utah Supreme Court to decide the case once it was appealed, the justices earlier this month assigned the case to the lower Court of Appeals.
Filed last June, the lawsuit claims convicted child molester George K. Tilson of Salt Lake City abused the mother in 1976 and her son in 1993-1996. The suit alleges that over a span of 39 years, church leaders knew Tilson, then a church member, had sexually abused children in his wards but never reported the abuse to police or warned other church members.
The church has argued it should not be held responsible for the misdeeds of those not acting on its behalf against other members. The alleged abuse did not occur on church property or while Tilson was in a position of authority.
"Assigning such liability would impose a new duty on voluntary organizations that has never before existed, requiring them to somehow oversee the actions of their members 24 hours a day," said church attorney Von Keetch in a statement.
"No court has ever adopted such a theory, and we are confident that the trial court's refusal to do so here will be upheld on appeal, " he added.
Attorney Mary Corporon, who is representing the woman and her son identifying themselves only as John and Jane Doe, said the church's position would allow any corporation, business or organization that knows it has a member who is a perpetrator of child sexual abuse to do nothing. Clergy are required by law to report knowledge of abuse to authorities.
"I am not saying that every organization is responsible for all of the conduct of all of its members," she said. "All we are saying is if you have that burden under the law and you don't follow through, then you have some liability."
In his ruling dismissing the church from the Doe lawsuit, 3rd District Judge Tyrone Medley also determined the lawsuit was filed too late to comply with legal requirements.
Citing a 2001 Utah Supreme Court decision, Medley also tossed out an emotional distress claim based on a church referral to counseling from agencies that allegedly favored forgiving the abuser and declining to report the case to law enforcement.
The suit, which also named Tilson as a defendant, has been put on hold pending the outcome of the appeal.
A separate case now on appeal before the Utah Supreme Court asks the justices to consider the same statute, which 3rd District Judge Dennis Frederick cited in dismissing a lawsuit brought by Jake and Jana Savage of Murray against Utah Youth Village.
The couple have claimed they were not told about their foster child's history of sexually assaulting other children before he abused their 3-year-old son.
Representing Utah Youth Village in the appeal, Dale Lambert said the issue in his case is similar to the one in the church's.
"The Legislature dealt with some important policy issues and decided that the focus of liability ought to be on perpetrators and not the institutions they may be connected with, " Lambert said.
"In our case, the trial court followed the language of the statute in dismissing the case, and that is also what occurred in the LDS church lawsuit."
The Savages' attorney, Spencer Siebers, decried any attempt to use the statute as a way to prevent victims from suing entities.
"If that were the law," he said, "you couldn't sue a day-care provider who allowed your kid to be sexually abused."
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