Court allows John Does to sue Presbyterian Church over decades-old sexual abuse

Appellate court found the church synod covered up records and did nothing to stop the abuse

By: - June 7, 2022 7:01 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

A Tennessee appellate court is allowing three men 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 “whitewash” investigation kept hidden for years.

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

The men, now in their 30s, were among several boys alleged to have been raped by then-Woodland pastor James B. “Jim” Stanford during “sleepovers” at his church-owned home in the 1990s, according to court records. They sought help from the church back then, but Stanford branded them liars and the church hierarchy backed him, records show.

It was only in 2019 that the men learned the church hierarchy had already known by the time of their abuse that Stanford was suspected of raping other boys at these “sleepovers” but did not tell them about those other claims, did nothing to stop the abuse and kept all the abuse claims hidden 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 file suit decades after the abuse.

“These (men) are now in their 30s, and the court finds that the statute of limitations has run on their claims,” Hurd ruled. “They knew what happened then … so, once they turned 18, within a year they should have asserted those claims (by filing a lawsuit). What happened to them is horrible. There is no doubt about that. It happens all too often.”

But in its Friday opinion, the appellate court disagreed and struck down Hurd’s ruling as legally flawed.

“(Hurd) erred in dismissing (the men’s) complaint at the motion to dismiss stage based upon the statute of limitations (because the men) alleged that efforts were made by certain of the institutional (church) defendants to hide the sexual abuse and a ‘whitewash’ ensued,” Chief Judge D. Michael Swiney wrote in the opinion. “As (the men have) successfully alleged fraudulent concealment, we reverse the trial court with respect to the statute of limitations issue.”

presbyterian church ruling

Church sex abuse scandals growing

The court cites as a basis for its ruling a groundbreaking 2012 decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court involving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Memphis. In that 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 “misled” them or covered up an abusive priest’s behavior.

A slew of court cases and investigative journalism efforts have now made clear that the Catholic church took active steps to cover up the misdeeds of its priests in the United States and abroad, including paying “hush money” to victims and moving abusive priests from church to church, for more than 70 years.

Pope Francis has acknowledged the “catastrophe” of the Catholic church’s handling of priests who abuses children and, in May 2019, issued a groundbreaking church law that requires all Catholic priests and nuns to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups to church authorities.

The Southern Baptist Convention last month issued a report detailing its own decades-long history of covering up sexual abuse by its clergy. That report came after investigative reporting by the Houston Chronicle revealed the SBC knew at least 700 church pastors and staffers had committed sexual abuse of church members over a 20-year period but kept the abuse hidden.

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

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

The pastor of a Memphis Presbyterian church selected boys from impoverished families, using church funds to pay for utilities and groceries, while playing the boys with liquor and abusing them at his church-owned house.

“What they did was wrong,” attorney Gary Smith told the Tennessee appellate court judges during arguments in the case earlier this year. “It happened. There’s not going to be any issue of whether (the abuse by Stanford) happened. (The three victims in the lawsuit) were shut up. They were shot down. They were not believed, so they dropped it.”

Booze and sleepovers

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

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

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

According to the lawsuit and statements made during oral arguments before the appellate court, Stanford targeted boys from poor families attending Woodland, using church funds to pay utility and food bills for those families. In turn, those families allowed their boys to attend “sleepovers” at Stanford’s home, which was owned by the church.

“Pastor Stanford was helping out the families financially,” Smith told the appellate judges. “He would bring these boys for overnight stays on the weekends, make alcohol available to them and, after they would go to sleep, he would sexually assault them.”

Two of the three men who are now suing Woodland reported the abuse to their Sunday School teacher at the time it occurred.

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

“He denied that it was going on, and they basically were told to go away,” Smith said.

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

“He denied it,” Smith said. “(The church governing body) dropped it. They allowed him to continue these overnights, which allowed him to continue the abuse. They never revealed to these (three) young men (now suing) that they had suspected Stanford of inappropriate conduct.”

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

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.