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Michigan Supreme Court takes up clergy abuse case

Wide exterior shot of state Supreme Court building
Lester Graham
Michigan Public

The Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments this month about whether a civil case involving 25-year-old clergy sex abuse allegations should go to trial.

The case rests upon whether a 2018 state law expanding the civil statute of limitations for criminal sexual conduct applies retroactively.

Christopher Desmond is an attorney for the survivor of alleged abuse. He said the law was meant to be broad.

"They were trying to help those individuals out and they were trying to ensure, now that we’re learning more, frankly about the psychology of sexual abuse victims and how there can be gaps in time between when abuse occurs and when you really understand the damage that that abuse caused,” Desmond said.

But the Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed with that logic and ruled in favor of the defendants, a former priest, the Diocese of Lansing, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

“Nothing in the plain language of MCL 600.5851b(1)(b) suggests that it was intended to apply retroactively,” the appellate court’s opinion read.

The law change created a lookback window for survivors of sex abuse at the hands of former Michigan State University athletics doctor Larry Nassar to come forward.

But it also allowed for a civil suit related to criminal sexual conduct within whichever of two conditions came last: the survivor’s 28th birthday or a three-year window after they come to terms with the abuse.

Attorneys for the plaintiff in the lawsuit claimed that should apply in this case, in which the alleged abuse occurred in 1999. The plaintiff said he didn’t recognize how that affected his life until he spoke with a therapist in 2020.

Desmond said his client is far from alone.

“The ruling that we’re seeking would equally apply to victims of clergy sexual assault, victims of sexual assault in a school setting, a university setting, there are all sorts of contexts where victims could benefit from the ruling that could come from this case,” Desmond said.

An attorney for the Diocese of Lansing did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday.

A voice messaging system at the Diocese's office said it was closed in observance of Easter.