Court allows John Does to sue Presbyterian Church over decades-old sex abuse – Tennessee Lookout


A Tennessee appeals court allows three men who were allegedly raped as children by a Presbyterian pastor in Memphis more than two decades ago to sue the church and its governing body for allegedly covering up the crimes with a hidden “money laundering” investigation for years.

In an opinion released Friday, the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision that dismissed the lawsuit the men had filed against Woodland Presbyterian Church and its two governing authorities, the Mid Presbyterian -South Inc. and the Living Waters Synod. Presbyterian Church, in 2020.

The men, now in their 30s, were among several boys allegedly raped by then-Woodland pastor James B. ‘Jim’ Stanford during ‘slumber parties’ at his church-owned home in the 1990s, according to court records. They sought help from the church at the time, but Stanford called them liars and the church hierarchy backed him up, records show.

It wasn’t until 2019 that the men learned that the church hierarchy already knew at the time of their abuse that Stanford was suspected of raping other boys during those ‘slumber parties’, but did not tell them. did not speak out about those other allegations, did nothing to stop the abuse, and hid all abuse complaints from its members and the public, according to court records.

Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Rhynette Hurd dismissed the lawsuit last year, ruling the men had no legal right to sue decades after the abuse.

“These (men) are now in their 30s, and the court finds that the statute of limitations has expired for their claims,” ​​Hurd said. “They knew what happened then…so once they turned 18, within a year they should have asserted those claims (by taking legal action). What happened to them is horrible. there is no doubt. It happens too often.”

But in its opinion on Friday, the appeals court disagreed and struck down Hurd’s decision as legally flawed.

“(Hurd) erred in dismissing (the men’s) complaint at the motion to dismiss stage based on the statute of limitations (because the men) alleged that efforts had been made by some of the institutional defendants ( of the church) to cover up the sexual abuse and a ‘laundering’ ensued,” Chief Justice D. Michael Swiney wrote in the opinion. “As (the men) successfully alleged a cover-up fraudulent, we reverse the judgment of the trial court with respect to the issue of the statute of limitations.”

ruling of the presbyterian church

Church sex abuse scandals on the rise

The court cites as the basis for its decision a groundbreaking 2012 decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court involving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Memphis. In this case, the High Court ruled for the first time that victims of childhood sexual abuse could sue – even decades after the abuse – if the church had ‘deceived’ them or covered up the abuse’s behavior. an abusive priest.

A multitude of court cases and investigative journalism efforts have now made it clear that the Catholic Church has taken active steps to cover up the wrongdoings of its priests in the United States and abroad, including by paying “silent money” to victims and moving abusive priests from one church to another. church, for over 70 years.

Pope Francis has acknowledged the “catastrophe” of the Catholic Church’s treatment of priests who abuse children and in May 2019 issued a groundbreaking ecclesiastical law that requires all Catholic priests and nuns to report sexual abuse and the concealment of the clergy from the ecclesiastical authorities.

The Southern Baptist Convention released a report last month detailing its own decades-long history of covering up sexual abuse by its clergy. This report came after investigative reports from the Houston Chronicle revealed that the SBC knew that at least 700 pastors and church staff had sexually abused church members over a period of 20 years, but that they had hidden these abuses.

The lawsuit involving Woodland Presbyterian and its former pastor raises similar allegations of years of subterfuge by the Presbyterian Church to keep sexual abuse hidden and victims silent.

The litigation reveals for the first time that the Presbyterian Church USA, the denomination’s parent organization, conducted a secret study of pastoral abuse in the 1990s and determined that not only was abuse happening, but that the church did nothing to prevent or stop them. . The Presbyterian Church in the United States, however, took no action regarding the study and kept it hidden, the lawsuit reveals.

The pastor of a Presbyterian church in Memphis selected boys from poor families, using church funds to pay for utilities and groceries, while playing boys with alcohol and abusing them in his house belonging to the church.

“What they did was wrong,” attorney Gary Smith told Tennessee appeals court judges during closing arguments in the case earlier this year. “It happened. There will be no question whether (the Stanford abuse) happened. (The three victims of the lawsuit) were locked up. They were shot. They were not believed, so they dropped it.

Alcohol and slumber parties

Stanford served as a pastor at Woodland from the 1990s until 2011, when he took a position as associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where he remained until the lawsuit was filed. He was 76 when the lawsuit was filed in 2020 and had been diagnosed with cancer at the time, court records show.

He has not denied the allegations against him, although he has never been criminally charged. In response to Woodland’s lawsuit, he told Judge Hurd that he was “ready for judgment” and would not hire a lawyer or fight the lawsuit.

But attorneys for Woodland and its two governing bodies balked at his “default judgment” ruling in favor of the three men who sued and successfully convinced Hurd to bar Stanford from deposition.

According to the lawsuit and statements made during oral arguments in the appeals court, Stanford targeted boys from poor families attending Woodland, using church funds to pay those families’ utility and food bills. In turn, these families allowed their boys to attend “slumber parties” at the Stanford house, which was owned by the church.

“Pastor Stanford was helping the families financially,” Smith told the appeals judges. “He would bring these boys to spend the night on weekends, make alcohol available to them and, after they fell asleep, he sexually assaulted them.”

Two of the three men now suing Woodland reported the abuse to their Sunday school teacher at the time it happened.

“She told them to confront Pastor Stanford,” Smith said, so they did.

“He denied it was happening, and they were basically told to walk away,” Smith said.

In 2019, these two boys — now adults in their 30s — met a man who also said he was abused by Stanford during “slumber parties” in the 1990s. The trio reached out to Woodland’s current pastor. It was only then, according to the lawsuit, that the men learned that Woodland’s governing bodies had confronted Stanford about the ‘slumber parties’ at some point before their own abuse and questioned him. on “a specific incident” of abuse involving another boy.

“He denied it,” Smith said. “(The governing body of the church) let him down. They allowed him to continue those nights, which allowed him to continue the abuse. They never disclosed to these (three) young men ( now prosecuting) that they had suspected Stanford of improper conduct.

The lawsuit now returns to Judge Hurd’s court for further proceedings. Woodland and its two governing bodies could seek a review by the Tennessee Supreme Court, but, so far, no such petition has been filed.


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