Sexual-abuse lawsuits: Illinois Supreme Court clarifies statute-of-limitations law

Decision shuts the door on some cases, say lawyers for alleged victims

By Manya A. Brachear Tribune reporter

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that sexual-abuse survivors who discovered their emotional scars before July 2001 should have filed lawsuits within two years of the discovery to have their day in court.

The ruling tries to correct misconceptions about an amendment to the state’s statute of limitations in 2003, which gave accusers five years instead of two to file civil suits after they realized they were abused. The law also granted accusers 10 years after turning 18 to file civil suits. The previous statute of limitations gave accusers two years.

Victims’ lawyers said the ruling “closes the door” on a number of pending civil cases for which the statute of limitations also expired for criminal charges. They say the Supreme Court ruling defies the intent of the law, which was passed in the wake of the child sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

“This decision today is a blow,” said Jeffrey Anderson, the Minnesota lawyer who argued for the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case. “It knocks the wind out of us.”

Thursday’s ruling stemmed from allegations against Kenneth Roberts, a suspended priest who at the time of the alleged abuse served in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Christopher Amenn, 39, now a firefighter from O’Fallon, alleged Roberts abused him in 1984 when Amenn was a student at St. Mary Parochial School in Belleville. Roberts was a guest lecturer on several topics.

In 1998, Amenn realized his severe depression stemmed from that alleged abuse and disclosed it to a doctor. At that point, the statute-of-limitations clock began to tick for Amenn. It expired in December 2000.

Thinking the law that passed in July 2003 would apply retroactively to any case between 1998 (five years before the law changed) and 2001, he sued in November 2003. Many others did as well.

Anderson said he now expects to face many motions to dismiss pending cases.

Near the end of the 16-page opinion, justices pointed out that it was the defendants in the case — Catholic bishops — who sought the court’s opinion. “Defendants in this case have elected to invoke the defense,” the justices wrote, “and they alone are responsible for that decision and its impact on plaintiff’s ability to seek relief through the courts.”