Supreme Court says alleged sex abuse victim can sue Catholic Church, estate of deceased priest

Published: Jun. 17, 2021 at 3:20 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) -The state’s high court has ruled that a man who claims to have been abused by a deceased Catholic priest may sue for damages.

Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision to dismiss Robert McGowen’s suit on statute of limitations grounds.

In 2019, McGowen filed a complaint against the estate of the late Father John Scanlon, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Biloxi for damages stemming from the abuse he suffered at the hands of Scanlon in 1984 and 1985.

McGowen was 12 and 13 at the time.

The Forrest County Circuit Court tossed the suit with prejudice on grounds that it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired.

McGowen, though, argued that the statute of limitations had not run out, because he had suppressed his memories for years, until December 2018. He said the court erred because the statute’s clock does not begin until a person realizes they’ve been victimized.

McGowen began receiving therapy in January 2019 to work through “the trauma of the alleged abuse.” His counselor at the time said the trauma was related to the abuse he received as a child, court records indicate.

In September 2019, McGowen filed suit against the estate of Father Scanlon, Sacred Heart, and the Biloxi Diocese.

The church argues that “repressed memories are ‘a piece of scientific folklore,’ citing many journals and articles to support its claim,’” and said that precedent from other jurisdictions backs up the lower court’s decision.

To that point, the high court said the statute is silent when it comes to repressed memories, but “is not silent about latent injuries.”

“The discovery rule requires asking whether ‘the plaintiff knew or reasonably should have known that an injury existed.’”

Justices would not answer that question, saying that should be left up for a jury to decide. The lower court’s decision was reversed and the case was remanded back to the Forrest County Circuit Court.

Justice Josiah Coleman wrote the opinion on behalf of the court. Concurring justices include Michael Randolph, James Kitchens, Leslie King, Dawn Beam, Robert Chamberlain, and David Ishee.

Justices Kenneth Griffis and James Maxwell dissented.

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