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Judge Says Sexual Abuse Case Involving Repressed Memory May Proceed

A judge in Jacksonville, Fla., has said a second lawsuit can move forward accusing a Baptist mega-church in the city of harboring a longtime former pastor now alleged to have been a pedophile.

In all seven lawsuits have been filed against Trinity Baptist Church by alleged former victims of Bob Gray, pastor of the church for 38 years, who died last year awaiting trial on charges of capital sexual battery involving 22 adults claiming Gray sexually abused them as children.

Judges threw out two of those lawsuits, finding they were filed too late due to statutes of limitation. In January the judge in a third case denied summary judgment for statute of limitations, ruling the case could move forward.

On Feb. 14 Duval County Circuit Judge John Skinner ruled that a second lawsuit, filed by a plaintiff identified as Jane Doe No. 2, a woman who claims her memories of abuse were repressed until after news of Gray’s arrest in May 2006, could also move forward.

Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called the ruling “good news, not only for Jane Doe No. 2, but also for Trinity Church members and the Jacksonville community.”

“It means that more of the evidence will see the light of day,” Brown said. “When the full truth about Trinity is made transparent, then perhaps healing can finally begin for the victims, the church and the community.”

Statutes of limitation usually protect an individual from being sued long after an act is alleged to have occurred. One exception is “delayed discovery,” meaning a statute of limitations in a civil case doesn’t begin to accrue until after the plaintiff learns of his or her injury. The concept dates to a 1949 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a railroad worker who became ill after years of inhaling silica dust on the job.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in a 2000 decision titled Hearndon v. Graham that the state’s delayed-discovery exception applied to victims of child sexual abuse who suffer traumatic amnesia as a result of that abuse.

While many victims of childhood sexual exploitation remember it throughout their lives, experts say some are damaged to the point that they repress those memories for years as a way to escape psychological trauma and pain. Sometimes, after a “triggering event” or counseling and therapy, those memories become more accessible.

Realizing their injury, those adult survivors may desire to seek legal action. A majority of states permit the use of the delayed-discovery rule in cases of childhood sexual abuse, though how it is applied varies widely.

The concept has its detractors. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation formed in 1992 to challenge the accuracy of recovered memory claims.

Five other lawsuits against Trinity Baptist Church are either on appeal or awaiting a ruling on the statute-of-limitation issue.

The lawsuits allege that church officials knew about Gray’s history as a serial child molester but did nothing to protect or warn other potential victims. The church’s current pastor denies there was a cover-up.

For most of his career, Gray was an independent Baptist, but the earliest accusation against him dated to 1949, when he worked as an assistant pastor at a Southern Baptist church. He was close friends with Jerry Falwell, a longtime independent Baptist who led his Thomas Road Baptist Church into the Southern Baptist Convention in the later years of his ministry.

Falwell has spoken at Trinity Baptist Church, where he alluded to the scandal as a “bump in the road.” So has Jerry Vines, a former SBC president and now retired pastor of nearby First Baptist Church in Jacksonville.

Republican presidential Mike Huckabee spoke recently to the congregation by phone, after calling off a scheduled in-person visit. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests asked Huckabee not to speak at Trinity out of respect for alleged victims of Gray.

Trinity Baptist Church is part of a movement among fundamental independent Baptists to build bridges with the SBC, which has increasingly embraced fundamentalism since the “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s. Independent Baptists’ more separate branch, associated with the Sword of the Lord newspaper published in Murfreesboro, Tenn., oppose the idea.

Southern Baptist leaders, who are studying the feasibility of a national database of clergy predators in Southern Baptist churches, acknowledge that denomination-jumping is a reality that must be taken into account in any comprehensive response to the problem of sexual abuse by clergy in the nation’s second-largest faith group.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.