Mississippi Supreme Court sends case accusing Catholic priest of abuse back to Forrest County
Robert McGowen's hopes for relief decades after he says he was sexually assaulted by a Catholic priest are still alive after the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling Thursday.
McGowen was 12 and 13 years old in 1984-85, when he says he was sexually abused by former Sacred Heart Catholic Church priest Father John Scanlon.
McGowen said he did not remember the abuse until one day in December 2018, after which he sought counseling, according to court documents.
He filed a complaint in 2019, but never got a chance to testify since 12th District Circuit Judge Jon Mark Weathers declined to hear the case.
Jackson attorney John Hawkins filed an appeal on McGowen's behalf, saying state law provides for a case to proceed if it was brought within three years of the discovery of an injury even if the statute of limitations for when the crime occurred had already expired.
He told the court during oral arguments in March that the lower court's dismissal robbed McGowen of the opportunity to be heard.
Hawkins cited other cases in Louisiana and Texas where the court was able to hear from witnesses and make a determination.
He said Thursday he is pleased the court is allowing the case to move forward.
“We’re pleased with the supreme court’s decision to allow this case to proceed on the merits and have the jury determine the facts,” Hawkins said.
After hearing arguments from both sides, the judges agreed.
"Accepting the allegations in the complaint as true, the trial court erred by finding that McGowen failed to state a claim," Judge Josiah Coleman wrote on behalf of the court. "Based on the allegations, we cannot agree that there is no set of facts upon which McGowan could recover (so) the decision of the circuit court is reversed and remanded."
While a majority of the justices ruled in McGowen's favor, two cast dissenting votes, saying Weathers was correct in his decision.
“Whether or not McGowen repressed the physical acts he endured when they occurred is not the critical inquiry with the discovery rule,” Judge Kenny Griffis wrote in his dissent. "Instead, as noted by the majority, 'the question before the court is whether McGowen alleged a latent injury.' I do not find that he did."
Joining Griffis in his dissent is Judge James Maxwell.
McGowen's complaint, filed in Forrest County Circuit Court in 2019, explained how he blocked or repressed all memory of the events until late November or early December 2018.
His counselor, Deborah Dawes, said she was able to determine McGowen suffered from "major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms of excessive anxiety, intrusive memories, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and suicidal ideation (among others)," court records show.
Attorneys for the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, which presides over Sacred Heart, said during oral arguments the case had no merit.
Biloxi attorney Christian Strickland, who represented the church and diocese in the oral arguments, said Thursday he could not comment on the court's decision since it is an ongoing legal matter.
Scanlon died in 1995 but his estate was named a defendant in the case. The priest's estate was dropped on appeal since the estate was dissolved and is no longer available for prosecution.
The Jackson native was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1951 and served the church and Catholic schools in many roles until his death.
Strickland cited an earlier case, Doe vs. the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jackson, in which a woman claimed she was sexually abused in her youth.
The unidentified woman did not say she had repressed memories. Instead, she said she had not brought her complaint until years later out of fear and shame.
Hawkins argued McGowen's case is different because he did not know or remember he was injured until 2018 and could not have filed a lawsuit before that time.
Strickland, however, argued the case hinges on Mississippi law, which does not specifically say repressed memory is not a reason to allow a case to proceed past the statute of limitations.
"We do not recognize repressed memory," Strickland said. "We should not recognize repressed memory."
With the Supreme Court's decision, the case will be returned to Forrest County Circuit Court for further consideration.
Victims of sex crimes are not typically identified. It was McGowen's choice to publicly disclose his identity.
McGowen is the administrator of public safety for Benton County, Arkansas, and previously served in law enforcement. He is an Army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, Hawkins said.