Sexual Abuse - Limitations Periodsappeals Court Erred in Finding That Discovery Rule Would Permit 32-Year-Old Woman to Bring Suit against Priest Who Allegedly Sexually Abused Her Once or Twice Every Week When She Was between Ages of 8 or 9 and 15 or 16; Plaintiff Clearly Knew She Had Been Injured at Time of Alleged Abuse and Made No Allegations That She Had Repressed Her Memory of Events.

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
February 1, 2000

The Illinois Supreme Court has reversed a ruling by the Appellate Court in a sexual abuse case.

Plaintiff Terese Clay filed suit in 1996 Kane County alleging that Brother Richard Kuhl sexually abused her while she was a minor. She also charged that the religious order to which Kuhl belonged -- defendant Society of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart -- had notice of similar misconduct but failed to take any action to prevent the abused charged by the plaintiff.

The plaintiff alleged in her complaint that Kuhl befriended her, her sister and their mother in 1972 or 1973, and began at that time to molest the plaintiff and her sister. The plaintiff alleged that the abuse occurred about once or twice a week and continued for about seven years.

The plaintiff was examined by a psychologist who suggested that the plaintiff, like other victims of childhood sexual abuse, had not been able to realize the causal relationship between the abuse she suffered and subsequent psychological problems she experienced. The plaintiff claimed that it was not until June 1994 that she realized Kuhl's misconduct caused her injuries.

The defendants moved to dismiss on the basis that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations. They claimed that the time for bringing the action expired on March 31, 1984, when the plaintiff turned 20. The defendants reasoned that the instances of misconduct alleged were sudden, traumatic events and that the plaintiff therefore should have been required to bring her action within two years of the time she reached the age of majority.

The trial court granted the defendants' motions to dismiss, concluding that the plaintiff's action was untimely. The trial court relied on the Appellate Court's opinion in M.E.H. v. L.H., 283 Ill.App.3d 241 (1996) , which characterized occurrences of child sexual abuse for purposes of statutes of limitations, as sudden, traumatic events that triggered the running of the limitations period once the victim of the abuse attained majority.

The appeals court here reversed, disagreeing with the M.E.H. case. The court expressed the view that the discovery rule should apply in cases of repressed memories of sexual abuse. The appeals court viewed the present case as one involving repressed memories of abuse. The court held that the complaint was timely on the basis that the plaintiff alleged in June 1994 that she first realized the alleged sexual encounters with Kuhl caused her injuries and that she filed her action within two years, in January 1996.

The Supreme Court reversed, concluding that it need not determine whether the instances of childhood sexual abuse alleged should be considered sudden, traumatic events" for purposes of the statute of limitations. Even if the plaintiff were to prevail on this question, the Supreme Court said, she would still be required to establish the timeliness of her action under the discovery rule. The court said it did not believe the discovery rule was of assistance to the plaintiff.

The court said the plaintiff had sufficient information about her injury and its cause to require her to being suit long before the date of discovery alleged in the complaint.

Given the allegations in the ... complaint, which show that the plaintiff was always aware of the misconduct charged, and the absence of any contrary assertion that the plaintiff repressed memories of the abuse, we believe that the plaintiff's action must be considered untimely under the discovery rule," the Supreme Court said.

The court rejected the plaintiff's contention that her injuries were latent to some extent and did not fully manifest themselves until years after the abuse occurred. The court said it did not believe that the plaintiff's alleged failure to fully discover the nature of her injuries was sufficient to delay the running of the limitations period. The court said there is no requirement that the plaintiff must know the full extent of his injuries before suit must be brought.

Justice Charles E. Freeman dissented, saying that the plaintiff's claims were timely under the discovery rule. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse are unaware that such abuse had caused them psychological problems, and the plaintiff in this case was not aware of her psychological problems until 1994, the justice said.

Terese Clay v. Brother Richard Kuhl, et al., Nos. 86938 and 86941. Justice Benjamin K. Miller wrote the court's opinion. Justice S. Louie Rathje took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. Freeman's dissent was joined by Chief Justice Moses W. Harrison II. Released Jan. 21, 2000. (16 pages)


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