ABUSE & VIOLENCE IN THE CHURCH, Failure to Report Crimes, Mandatory Reporting, Mental Health and the Church, Sexual Abuse/Assault and Churches, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Sovereign Grace Ministries Lawsuit, Statute of Limitations

The Legal “Perfect Storm” for Enabling Sex Abuse

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First things first  – I have seen several news reports wrongly report that Judge Burrell recently dismissed the Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) lawsuit.  That is not true.  I contacted Attorney Susan Burke to make sure I was understanding it correctly and asked if she could send me a statement and she did:

“The case remains pending for two plaintiffs against Maryland defendants. The court dismissed all Virginia defendants.”
~Attorney Susan Burke, May 19, 2013

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The Legal Perfect Storm for Enabling Sex Abuse

Covering sex abuse cases in churches this last year, including the sex abuse case in my own former church, I’ve noticed “The Perfect Storm” happening time and again.  This Perfect Storm has allowed pedophiles to get away with their crimes and continue their path of destruction and destroy innocent lives.

In the recent Sovereign Grace Ministries lawsuit case, we heard the court rule that the case was mostly dismissed because of a “technicality.”  Yea, right.  Try saying “technicality” to a victim who has had to deal with years of therapy, may have PTSD, flashbacks, challenges in relationships, difficulty trusting, etc.  “Technicality” is just a simple word, but it’s a behemoth to those affected by it.

What is that technicality?  In this case, it is the Statute of Limitations (SOL).

A statute of limitations (or SOL), simply, is the maximum amount of time one has to bring a lawsuit from the time of the injury or other ground for a lawsuit. (Source)

It is common knowledge  that one of the ways in which abuse victims are able to survive their horrific ordeal is by using a number of defense mechanisms.  Sometimes, it takes years recollect the painful memories because they are put on the back burner.  Eventually, though, the memories surface.

It takes a very strong person to get to the point where they want to actually do something about the abuse – – to get help, to report it.  But the SOLs can interfere with this process for abuse victims.  Sometimes, these painful memories resurface far past the SOL timeframe. When this happens, there is no justice for the survivor and the perpetrator suffers no consequence, will not serve time as a sex offender, will not be named on a sex offender registry, they are completely free to live their life and possibly re-victimize.  This is unacceptable.

Attorney Marci Hamilton is a champion for bringing awareness to these statutes/laws in our nation which must be reformed  to protect our children.  If you follow her on Twitter, you will see she is sounding the bullhorn daily to get laws changed and raise awareness.  Here is part of a report Ms. Hamilton presented on March 10, 2013 to The Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly:

For over twenty years, I have been a full-time faculty member at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, New York, NY, where I currently hold the title of Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law. My book, Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge University Press 2008, 2012), and website, http://www.sol-reform.com are leading resources in the field of legislation to protect child sex abuse victims. As an expert in this arena—who has researched, written, and testified regarding the inadequacy of the current statutes of limitations to deal with child sex abuse in many states, and abroad—I feel compelled to write an explanation as to why amending and extending the Pennsylvania statutes of limitations for child sex abuse is the only path to protecting our children.

The report included arguments we hear regarding statutes of limitations.  Here’s a common argument that is often heard:

Argument 7: Some are concerned about the potential for false claims.

Answer 7: Victims of child sex abuse rarely make false claims, as we learned in California and Delaware, where windows already opened and closed. In California, there were approximately 5 total false claims out of the 850 against the Catholic Church, which means false claims in the area of child sex abuse are statistically insignificant. In addition, numerous scientific studies have established that children rarely make up child sex abuse. (Source)

You can see the SOL statutes in your state as well as information on what you can do to get involved in these reforms at Marci’s site:  SOL-Reform.com.

In the recent Sovereign Grace Ministries court ruling, 9 of the 11 defendants were dismissed because of the “technicality” of statute of limitations.  Below you will find the SOL statutes for the state of Maryland.  The first bullet was applicable in the recent ruling because it is a civil case.  But go to the bottom of the screen shot and look at the statute of limitations for criminal felonies.  While some of the defendants may be pleased and have a sense of relief with the recent ruling, once they see this, they might be shaking in their boots knowing there are current and ongoing criminal investigations.  This ain’t over yet, folks.

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Screen shot 2013-05-18 at 9.16.07 PM

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Ok, so the Statute of Limitations is one part of The Perfect Storm.  The other part is Mandatory Reporting laws.  We have discussed this issue here:  Mandatory Reporting Laws for Clergy: Loopholes for Abuse and  Judge Refuses to Drop Charges in Oklahoma Failure to Report Case. If this SGM case had occurred in Oklahoma, pastors could have been charged and served time for failure to report.   Sovereign Grace Ministries pastors allegedly failed to report sex crimes to civil authorities.

Many states across the nation have a clergy exemption in the mandatory reporting laws.  My question to this is WHY?  When it comes to protecting defenseless children, clergy must be required to report it.  Just because someone is reported does NOT mean that someone will be arrested.  But let’s let the system work and assess the risk.  Pastors MUST report criminal activity to civil authorities.  They can deal with the spiritual aspect with the perpetrator after the civil authorities have done their investigations.

It’s important to realize what happened at Sovereign Grace Ministries churches and learn from these mistakes.  In the SGM cases, we know that pastors and church leaders felt they needed to deal with sin and reconciliation instead of reporting.  This was wrong.  If pastors realize they will go to prison for failing to report, they will be compelled by threat of the law to do so and deal with the sin/reconciliation issues after civil authorities have done their job.

Marci Hamilton was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper regarding this perfect storm.   It is very brief and so good.  Tell me if this doesn’t get you fired up.  Start blowing the bullhorn, people.  This is where you can get involved and I hope you do.

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11 thoughts on “The Legal “Perfect Storm” for Enabling Sex Abuse”

  1. “The case remains pending for two plaintiffs against Maryland defendants. The court dismissed all Virgina defendants.”

    This sounds like the opposite of what we’ve been hearing. True?


  2. I’m not sure about it being “opposite”, Jeff. Some news sources were wrongly saying the entire case was dismissed. The case is ongoing for 2 of the plaintiffs and also there is talk of an appeal of the ruling.


  3. Many of the clergy laws are intended to protect “private absolution” in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, but they are broad enough to protect all pastoral counseling. There should probably be a distinction made between absolution (which is ONLY telling your sins to the minister or priest and receiving forgiveness) and receiving more detailed pastoral counseling, which should have mandatory reporting. Though, honestly, I wouldn’t speak any “comforting words” to someone unwilling to turn himself in for sexually abusing a child.

    The statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse should be the same as those in murder and wrongful death civil cases.


  4. Karl – Thank you for your insight. You have brought up issues I hadn’t thought of. I still don’t morally understand how an adult could keep a sex crime committed against a minor private.


  5. The point is that, in private absolution, you keep ALL confessions secret regardless of what they are or how heinous they are. You don’t even tell other priests or ministers, and if you find out in some other way, you report it to the civil magistrate.


  6. Sadly, I think the false claim possibility is a little more complex than your post implies. When I was a young pastor I went to a training on sex abuse and was taught that it’s very unlikely that a child would make a false claim of sexual abuse. I still believe that’s true, and any claim must be taken very seriously. I’ve learned since then, however, that there are situations where a false claim can become more likely. It is not unheard of, for example, that in the midst of an ugly divorce one parent might coach children to make false claims of sexual abuse against the other parent. Also, overly aggressive law enforcement interviews of children can unintentionally, especially with young children, result in false claims. There were some infamous cases along these lines that became national media events. There was also a counseling movement a while ago that claimed to uncover memories of sexual abuse. Many hold now that such methods can actually create false memories.

    I don’t mean to take away from your main point. I think it’s obvious that none of this applies to the SGM lawsuit. Also, I agree that longer sol laws are good. My only concern is that we understand the more complex situations so that our confidence is well grounded. The bottom line is that we must believe children when they make claims of sexual abuse while being aware of circumstances that may justify doubt. I have, as a pastor, counseled adult victims of child sexual abuse who have told me that they made many attempts as children to tell adults what was going on and no one listened. That never fails to bring both anger and tears.


  7. Hi Craig: I appreciate your perspective and can certainly imagine false claims in a situation like you mentioned. It would be interesting to look at the studies used for that quote to see more specifics. The numbers did seem high to me, but I figured if she was an attorney using it to influence lawmakers, it must be fairly legit.


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