FAILURE TO REPORT IS NEGLIGENCE, NOT SEXUAL ABUSE

The unpublished decision of the Court of Appeal of California in Jane Doe v Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, Slip Op. 2016, is interesting on so many levels it is difficult to be selective.  The Plaintiff alleged she was molested in 2002 or 2003 by a youth pastor.  She sued the church and the senior pastor to recover money damages.  The senior pastor was also principal of the church high school in 2010.  The trial court dismissed the case on statute of limitations grounds and the court of appeals affirmed.  The basic reason was that the court of appeals agreed that the failure to report sexual abuse, while a violation of statute, is only actionable for the period of time permitted by the statute of limitations.  The failure to report was classified as an act of negligence subject to the statute of limitations for all negligence actions.  The failure to report was not classified as sexual abuse, and in California sexual abuse is governed by a longer statute of limitation.

The lesser issues in the case did not change the result.  The Plaintiff alleged that the youth pastor remained employed by the church for seven days after her complaint before he was fired and that resulted in “secondary victimization” and “betrayal trauma.”  In addition to the failure to report claim, the Plaintiff claimed she was forced to confront the abuser in a meeting with the senior pastor acting as principal, told that she was not believed, and two weeks before graduation was expelled in retaliation.  Even if all of the claims were meritorious, none of them extended the statute of limitations beyond Plaintiff’s eighteenth birthday plus two years.  All of these alleged wrongful acts, if they occurred, were after the alleged sexual abuse, and not a cause.

One of the likely psychological underpinnings of the decision, if not an actual basis, was that there was no allegation or proof that the youth pastor’s alleged misconduct could have been foreseen by the church or senior pastor.  There was no alleged prior pattern of sexual misconduct.  The record was silent as to whether a background check was performed prior to hiring but had there been, there might have been additional support for the defense of lack of foreseeability.

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