Catholic sex abuse claim: State Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Hattiesburg case

Hattisburg American [Hattiesburg MS]

March 30, 2021

By Lici Beveridge

A Forrest County judge erred when he dismissed a case of alleged sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, one attorney argued Tuesday before a three-judge panel of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Attorney John Hawkins said state law provides for a case to proceed if it was brought within three years of the discovery of an injury even if the statute of limitations for when the crime occurred had already expired.

Hawkins is representing Robert McGowen, who claims he was sexually abused by former Sacred Heart Catholic Church priest Father John Scanlon in 1984 and 1985, when McGowen was 12 and 13 years old.

McGowen is the administrator of public safety for Benton County, Arkansas, and previously served in law enforcement. He is an Army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, Hawkins told the court.

Scanlon, a Jackson native, was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1951 and served the church and Catholic schools in many roles until his death.

Hawkins suggested the court should be allowed to hear the arguments from both sides and determine whether repressed memory applies to the law and whether the case is viable.

Hawkins said with the dismissal, none of the case was heard so his client was not given a fair opportunity to be heard. He cited other cases in Louisiana and Texas where the court was able to hear from witnesses and make a determination.

“That needs to be dealt with in discovery with expert witnesses,” he said.

Justices Leslie King, Josiah Coleman and Dawn Beam heard the arguments.

McGowen did not remember the abuse until one day in December 2018. He sought counseling from Dr. Deborah Dawes, according to court documents.

Due to the trauma of the events, McGowen blocked or repressed all memory of the events until late November or early December 2018, his complaint says.

Dawes was able to determine McGowen suffered from “major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms of excessive anxiety, intrusive memories, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, and suicidal ideation (among others),” court records show.

12th Circuit Judge Jon Mark Weathers did not hear the case, citing Mississippi’s law on the statute of limitations in seeking relief from alleged crimes, which is the position of the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi and Sacred Heart Catholic Church, two of the defendants named in the case.

Scanlon died in 1995 but his estate was named a defendant in the original case. The priest’s estate was dropped on appeal since the estate was dissolved and no longer available for prosecution.

Defendants’ attorney Christian Strickland cited an earlier case, Doe vs. the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jackson, in which a woman claimed she was sexually abused in her youth.

The unidentified woman did not say she had repressed memories. Instead, she said she had not brought her complaint until years later out of fear and shame.

Hawkins said McGowen’s case is different because he did not know or remember he was injured until 2018 and could not have filed a lawsuit before that time.

Strickland said the latent-injury definition in Mississippi law does not apply in McGowen’s case since he was aware of the abuse as it happened and should have known about it decades before he filed his lawsuit.

He said the case hinges on Mississippi law, which does not specifically say repressed memory is not an allowable reason to allow a case to proceed past the statute of limitations. 

“We do not recognize repressed memory,” Strickland said. “We should not recognize repressed memory.

“Of course child sex abuse cannot be condoned. There is no question that it is an evil. But the courts have also been clear that false accusations can destroy families.”

According to a database of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse, McGowen is Scanlon’s only accuser.

The Supreme Court justices will consider the arguments and make a decision at a later date.

Contact Lici Beveridge at Follow her on Twitter @licibev or Facebook at