Victims of Sexual Abuse Should Not Put Off Consulting a Solicitor

Posted: 7th May 2020

CourtVictims of sexual abuse are very often entitled to substantial compensation, but any delay in seeking legal advice can prove fatal to such claims. In one case, the High Court ruled that, more than 50 years after a woman claimed to have been molested by a Catholic priest, a fair trial of her damages claim was no longer possible.

The woman alleged that the priest abused her during visits to her home in 1968 or 1969 when she was four or five years old. However, having tried to put traumatic memories of what happened behind her, she did not consult solicitors until many years after the event, by which time the priest was long dead.

Lawyers launched proceedings on her behalf in 2017 against the trustees of the Benedictine community of which the priest had been a member. The trustees admitted that they would bear indirect liability for any wrongdoing that might be proved on the priest’s part. However, they resisted the woman’s claim on the basis that their ability to defend themselves had been hopelessly prejudiced by delay.

Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that the three-year time limit which normally applies to personal injury claims began to run when the woman reached the age of 18. More than 30 years had passed thereafter before her claim was issued. The proceedings being many years out of time, the sole issue was whether it would be fair, just and reasonable for the Court to exercise its discretion so as to enable the woman’s claim to proceed.

The woman explained that she had never forgotten the abuse but that she had for years tried to put it to the back of her mind. Memories of what happened made her feel ashamed and dirty and she sensed that her family did not want to talk about it even though they knew what the priest had done to her. She had not wanted to make a complaint whilst her devoutly Catholic mother was still alive.

The Court, however, noted that the woman’s case relied on her patchy memories of events that were said to have happened over 50 years ago. The trustees’ ability to fairly defend her claim had been seriously compromised by the passage of so many years and, most importantly, the priest was no longer alive to give his side of the story. More than a decade after his death, it was impossible to know what his response to the woman’s allegations would have been.

The woman’s reasons for the delay did not outweigh its prejudicial impact on the trustees and her case against them was not so strong as to justify waiving the time limit. Her claim was dismissed.