Can church groups and Louisville be sued on old child sex abuse claims? Court to decide

Adopted at age 2 by Louisville Police Officer Sean Jackman — who eventually rose to lieutenant — Samantha Killary later alleged that he sexually abused her throughout her childhood, stopping only when she turned 18 in 2009.

After she secretly recorded him admitting the abuse and apologizing for it, he pleaded guilty to multiple sex offenses and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, which he is still serving.

She also sued him as well as other defendants, namely former Officer Linda Thompson, whom Jackman dated from 2001 to 2003, and his father, former Detective Sgt. Rick Jackman. She alleged both knew of the abuse and failed to report it, as required by law.

And Killary also sued Louisville Metro, for employing and empowering them.

Jefferson Circuit Judge McKay Chauvin dismissed all the defendants, saying they were protected by a statute of limitations that at the time gave people alleging child sexual abuse only five years to sue — and which had long expired.

But determined to do something about Kentucky’s status leading the nation in substantiated child abuse reports per capita, the state legislature in 2017 doubled the time in which people could sue. And in 2021, for the first time, it said claims could be brought against “non-perpetrators” such as police, government units or religious organizations that violated their duties to children.

The Court of Appeals reinstated Killary’s suit, and now the state Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether the legislature’s expansions of the child abuse law should be applied retroactively, to alleged abuse before the law changed.

The case was argued Thursday at the court and different justices, through their questions, expressed skepticism about the positions of both sides.

The case has attracted national attention, including from a child advocacy group, state and national trial lawyer associations and from Southern Baptist entities fearful of increasing their legal exposure.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, Child USA, which bills itself as the nation’s leading think tank on the civil rights of children, says extending the time to sue — and increasing the categories of potential defendants — provides access to justice previously denied to child sex abuse victims. The Philadelphia-based organization also said such reforms prevent further abuse by fostering social awareness and encouraging public and ”private institutions to implement accountability and safe practices.”

Tad Thomas, the attorney for Killary (pronounced Kil-LARIE), told the court Thursday that it can take decades for people to come to terms with their abuse and gather the courage to do something about it.

Lining up on the other side are the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who are urging the court to throw out Killary’s lawsuit.

In their brief they say they “of course do not dispute the laudable policy reasons for providing relief for victims of childhood sexual abuse.”

But “not even the most sacrosanct policy can trump the due process concerns presented in this and similar cases involving the attempted retroactive application of expired claims,” they say.

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The brief says the seminary and convention, a fellowship of 47,000 churches, are themselves on the hook for claims dating to 2003 that they knew about abuse and violated their duties in responding to it.

Statutes of limitations, which can apply in criminal and civil cases, have been both condemned and hailed for protecting the rights of defendants.

One hundred years ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. asked, "What is the justification for depriving a man of his rights — a pure evil as far as it goes — in consequence of the lapse of time?"

But legal scholars say they provide important safeguards that protect would-be defendants from having to defend claims years after the fact, when relevant evidence may be lost and the memories of witnesses may not be as sharp — if they are still alive.

While The Courier Journal does not usually identify victims of child sex abuse, Thomas noted Killary elected to sue under her real name rather than initials or a pseudonym and to be fully identified.

She also wrote a book, “Out of the Blue,” under her name about her travails, including being forced by her adoptive father to participate in what he called “naked parties.”

In her lawsuit, she alleges Thompson participated in her sexual abuse. Attorneys for Thompson and Rick Jackman did not respond to her allegations.

Sean Jackman became commander of LMPD's VIPER unit, which focused on violent crime before being dismantled in 2015.

The General Assembly in 2017 extended the time for child sex victims to sue their alleged perpetrators to 10 years after they turn 18, or 10 years after the perpetrator’s criminal conviction.

In 2021, the legislature said that would apply retroactively to allegations of misconduct before 2017.

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The legislature also created new cause of action against “non-perpetrator third parties” and said Louisville Metro and other government bodies would not be protected from childhood sex claims by using sovereign immunity.

But the legislature did not expressly say whether those provisions would be applied retroactively — questions the Supreme Court now must answer. Chief Justice Laurance B. VanMeter announced the court would rule as soon as possible.

Thompson, Rick Jackman and Louisville Metro say it would be unfair to revive a claim that has expired.

The city says it would be particularly egregious to penalize it for failing to learn of the conduct in question and put an end to it at a time it had no duty to do so.

Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at (502) 396-5853 or

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Child sex abuse: Kentucky Supreme Court weighs statute of limitations