Judges have thrown out two of six child-molestation lawsuits against a Florida Baptist mega-church, saying they were filed after a statute of limitations had expired.An attorney for Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., told the Florida Times-Union similar motions were pending in three other cases. A sixth case was filed more recently and hasn’t progressed as far.
Two plaintiffs identified as Jane Doe No. 4 and Jane Doe No. 5 alleged they were sexually abused on multiple occasions by Bob Gray, the former pastor who led the church for 38 years, as young girls in the 1970s and 1980s. Their lawsuits claimed that church leaders knew of allegations that Gray had abused other minors, but concealed the information and did nothing to warn other victims.
Both women filed their lawsuits after Gray’s arrest in 2006 on charges of capital sexual battery. Gray, 81, died last month, just days before he was scheduled to stand trial on charges involving 21 women and one man.
Gray’s death ended the criminal case but not the civil lawsuits alleging negligence and liability against the church. In rulings Oct. 23 and Nov. 29, however, two circuit judges both said the lawsuits were filed long after a four-year statute of limitations.
“The purpose of a statute of limitations is to promote justice by preventing surprises through the revival of claims that have been allowed to slumber until evidence has been lost, memories have faded and witnesses have disappeared,” Judge Peter J. Fryefield said in dismissing the suit filed by Jane Doe No. 4.
The plaintiffs had argued the statute of limitations didn’t apply because of “fraudulent concealment” by the church. But Judge Charles O. Mitchell said in the ruling against Jane Doe No. 5 that the church did nothing to prevent the plaintiff from filing her lawsuit within the applicable period.
Neither woman claimed to have repressed memories of the abuse, which might have tilted the decision the other way. Since they knew their attacker and his relationship to the church, both judges decreed, it wasn’t the church’s fault they waited too late to sue.
Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said while big-dollar verdicts make headlines, most clergy abuse lawsuits get thrown out on grounds of statute of limitations.
“So many people persist in believing the myth of the money-grubber plaintiff,” Brown said in a blog. “Yet what happened here is closer to the usual reality.”
After his arrest, Gray reportedly admitted to police that he French-kissed girls at his church but denied molesting them. Victims claim things went much further.
Investigative reports by a television station alleged that church leaders knew Gray was a pedophile but covered it up to avoid bad publicity and shipped him off to Germany, where he served 10 years as a missionary.
Trinity’s current pastor, Tom Messer, said in a statement Dec. 9 there was no cover-up.
“Despite the rumors and allegations, I did not cover-up this situation,” Messer said. “Every time I talked with someone regarding the issue I have been honest and tried to be helpful. I know today that some of the people that I have tried to help were not satisfied. I wish that were not the case, because these are people that I love and care for deeply.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.