Kansas court upholds dismissal of suit against alleged pedophile priest; attorney asks Legislature to act
Topeka ? The attorney for a man who claimed to be sexually abused by a priest when he was a child is calling for a change in state law that puts a strict time limit on how long a person can wait to file a civil suit, even in child abuse cases in which the victim suffers repressed memory syndrome.
“Absolutely, it needs to be fixed,” attorney Rebecca Randles said during an interview Friday.
Randles was the attorney for a man identified in court documents only as John Doe, who said he was abused in 1972, at age 11, by a Catholic priest, Finian Meis, who was then serving at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Shawnee.
Meis was dismissed from the church in 1986 and later stripped of his priesthood, according to a 2010 article in the Journal-World.
According to the court’s opinion, Doe said he repressed all memory of the abuse until around 2011, after other victims of Meis had come forward.
He filed the lawsuit in April 2014, naming various Catholic church institutions and officials, including the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and Archbishop Joseph Naumann, as defendants, arguing that they were responsible for the actions of their employee, Meis.
Attorneys for the church, however, argued that Doe had waited too long to file the suit. They cited Kansas laws that impose strict time limits on how long a person can wait after being injured by another person’s actions to file a civil suit.
In cases involving injuries inflicted on children younger than 18, who don’t have the legal right to sue, the law states that the suit must be filed within a year after turning 18 and never more than eight years after the act was committed.
Randles said that law makes no provision for cases involving repressed memory syndrome, a psychiatric condition in which certain memories of traumatic events are unconsciously blocked, something common in cases of sexual abuse, according to some experts.
In 1992, the Legislature did enact another statute that does address repressed memory and childhood sexual abuse. It allows a suit to be filed within three years after turning 18, or within three years “from the date the person discovers or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or illness was caused by childhood sexual abuse, whichever occurs later.”
However, because the acts Doe alleged occurred 20 years before that law was enacted, the court said that law could not be applied retroactively, even though it was written to apply to cases that would have been barred under the old law.
Randles tried to get around that problem by arguing that the defendants had fraudulently concealed Meis’ actions, thus making it impossible for Doe, or his parents, to have sued within the legal time limit, an argument that Kansas courts have previously accepted.
“When a child is being placed with a priest, even if the child represses all memory, the diocese is concealing their knowledge of the perpetrator’s abuse from the parents who are standing in the children’s shoes,” she said. “The parents relied on the church or they would have never placed their child in harm’s way.”
The district court, however, said Doe failed to show in specific detail what fraudulent acts the church committed and how those acts prevented him from being able to file his suit for 42 years after the incident.
In a decision that was originally filed in June but only published this week, a three-judge Court of Appeals panel agreed.
In a 25-page opinion written by Judge Steve Leben, the panel said the injuries to Doe were covered by the eight-year time limit and therefore the time limit expired in 1980.
After that, the court said, the church had a “substantive right” not to have to defend itself against claims that could have been filed earlier.
Randles said she would not appeal the decision to the Kansas Supreme Court, but she said she hopes the Kansas Legislature will address the time-limit statutes.
The decision was originally filed as an unpublished opinion, but lawyers for the defendants filed a petition later to have it published after the deadline for appealing to the Supreme Court expired. The Supreme Court granted that petition Wednesday.