The Illinois Supreme Court recently handed down an opinion that poses a major hurdle for older victims of clergy sexual abuse. Separate and apart from the legal aspect of the opinion, the undisputed facts again demonstrate an appalling neglect on the part of the Church when faced with evidence they had an abuser in their ranks.
In Doe v. Dallas, the plaintiff was was sexually abused by Kenneth Roberts, a Catholic priest, in 1984. The plaintiff was just 14. At the time, he was an eighth grader at a Catholic school in Belleville, Illinois. Father Roberts was a guest lecturer at the school. Among his topics was sex education. Roberts was allowed to speak, even though church officials were aware he had previously engaged in the inappropriate sexual behavior on at least two occasions.
Roberts, a former flight attendant, was a prolific author, and well known in the Catholic community. His published works included books like Playboy to Priest and Nobody Calls It Sin Anymore. After hearing Roberts speak, plaintiff came to admire him and sought advice on how to become a priest. Roberts agreed to assist the victim, and then of course, abused him.
Plaintiff didn’t disclose the abuse until 1998, when acute psychological problems forced him to leave work. He filed his lawsuit in 2003. Roberts moved to dismiss, arguing that the allegations were time-barred. Roberts argued that the case was governed by 735 ILCS 13-202.2(1994), which stated that in actions for sex abuse that took place before the plaintiff was 18, the case had to be filed within 2 years after the person abused discovered, or through reasonable diligence should discover the abuse. Roberts argued that as plaintiff disclosed the abuse in 1998, he had to file suit within 2 years of that date.
In response, plaintiff argued that his cause of action was governed by 13-202.2, as amended in 2003. The amendment provides that actions for sexual abuse must be commenced within 10 years of the 18th birthday or within 5 years of the date the person discovers (a) an act of childhood sexual abuse and (b) that an injury was caused by the abuse. Interestingly the amendment provided that it applied to all actions pending as of July 24, 2003, as well as all actions commenced after that date. Plaintiff argued that the suit was timely as it was filed within 5 years of when he first reported the abuse.
In response, Roberts argued that because plaintiff’s suit was already time-barred under the prior law before the amendment, allowing the lawsuit to be revived violated his constitutional rights. The trial court agreed with Roberts and dismissed the case. On appeal, the Appellate Court held the the amendment was to be applied both retroactively as well as prospectively – and reversed the trial court’s ruling.
The Supreme Court ruled that once a claim is time-barred, reviving it through subsequent legislation would offend the due process protection of the Illinois Constitution. The Appellate Court was reversed and the ruling of the trial court affirmed.
Attorneys involved in local and national sex abuse cases have suggested that victims in their 40’s may face a significant obstacle in seeking recovery as a result of the ruling.