Failure to realize the full extent of psychological harm from sexual abuse is not enough to toll the statute of limitations, the state Superior Court has ruled in determining a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder years after the abuse stopped does not extend the time to sue.
The Superior Court issued its unpublished decision Tuesday in lawsuits filed by Francis Finnegan and Philip Gaughan against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and church administration official Monsignor William Lynn. Both Finnegan, 54, and Gaughan, 35, alleged they were abused by priests when they were children and were more recently diagnosed with PTSD.
The court, in an opinion by President Judge Susan Peikes Gantman, said Finnegan and Gaughan knew or should have known the facts of their injuries and were immediately capable of filing suit.
"That appellant Finnegan and appellant Gaughan might not have known the full extent of the psychological harm done until 2011 when they were diagnosed with chronic PTSD, is immaterial," Gantman said. "The fact remains that they knew what was happening and who was doing it when the abuse occurred and should have instituted their actions within their prescribed statutes of limitations."
Gantman, joined by Judges John T. Bender and Paula Francisco Ott, affirmed the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas ruling dismissing the two plaintiffs' cases.
Daniel Monahan, the Malvern attorney representing Finnegan and Gaughan, said this decision is another example of why "we absolutely need, and justice cries out for, Pennsylvania to reform its statute of limitations for all sexual abuse cases."
Monahan said child sex-abuse victims are often groomed by their abusers and are not aware of the nature and extent of harm as it is happening.
"I think [the court's ruling is] oversimplifying what's going on in the sexual abuse of a small child," Monahan said.
Nicholas Centrella of Conrad O'Brien represents the archdiocese and Lynn and did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Gantman rejected Finnegan and Gaughan's reliance on the discovery rule's application to asbestos cases.
"Unlike the asbestos scenario, where the exposure to asbestos does not necessarily constitute an immediate injury, the childhood sexual abuse endured by appellant Finnegan and appellant Gaughan constituted actionable batteries at the time of the occurrences," Gantman said.
Finnegan, born in 1961, alleged he was abused by a priest from St. Francis Xavier parish between 1968 and 1970. He alleged he repressed the memory until 2007. In 2008, Finnegan reported the incidents to the Victim Assistance Program of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The program put him in touch with medical and psychological assistance but Finnegan did not take advantage of that help until 2011, Gantman said. During treatment, Finnegan was diagnosed with PTSD with delayed onset stemming from the alleged sexual abuse he endured as a child, according to the opinion. Finnegan filed his suit in March 2011.
Gaughan, born in 1980, worked in the Our Lady of Calvary parish beginning in 1994. He alleged he was abused by a priest there from 1994 through 1997, Gantman said. Gaughan reported the abuse to the Victim Assistance Program in 2010, entering counseling that same year. He was diagnosed with chronic PTSD stemming from the alleged sexual abuse he endured as a child, Gantman said. Gaughan initiated his lawsuit in March 2011.
On appeal, Finnegan and Gaughan argued their real injuries did not occur when the abuse occurred, but rather when they connected the negative psychological effects of the abuse to the specific instances of abuse. They argued the statute of limitations should have been tolled until they discovered the full extent of their injuries.
In rejecting the alleged victims' arguments, Gantman cited to the Superior Court's 1996 decision in Pearce v. Salvation Army, which held the statute of limitations is not tolled simply because the memory of sexual abuse was repressed. She also cited to the court's 1993 ruling in E.J.M. v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which held the discovery rule does not toll the statute of limitations when the plaintiff is aware of the assault but is unaware that the abuse harmed him.
Gina Passarella can be contacted at 215-557-2494 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI.
Reprinted with permission from the October 6, 2015 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.