Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Personal Injuries - Part 1
On Church Property or During Church Activities

An Illinois state appeals court ruled that a church and a parent denomination were not legally responsible for a pastor's homosexual assault of three boys. A Methodist pastor allegedly molested three boys. The boys' parents sued the pastor, his church, and the Central Illinois Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, claiming that the boys had suffered severe emotional damage. The parents claimed that the church and the president of the church board were liable for the pastor's conduct on the basis of "respondeat superior" (a legal theory under which an employer generally is legally responsible for the misconduct of employees committed within the course of their employment). The parents claimed that the Conference negligently assigned the pastor to the church, knowing of a prior homosexual assault on another boy several years earlier. A trial court dismissed the "respondeat superior" claims against the church, president of the church board, and the Conference, but it allowed the case to proceed to trial on other theories of liability. The pastor settled with the victims for $225,000, and jury returned a verdict against the Conference in the amount of $450,000 ($150,000 per boy) on the basis of its alleged negligence. The parents and the Conference appealed. The parents claimed that the respondeat superior claim against the Conference should not have been dismissed, and the Conference claimed that the verdict against it should be reversed. A state appeals court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the respondeat superior claim against the Conference, agreeing that the pastor's assault constituted a deviation from the pastor's "scope of employment" with the Conference. Since the assault did not occur within the scope or course of the pastor's employment, it could not be imputed to the Conference. The court also dismissed the negligence verdict against the Conference, but ordered a new trial on this issue. It is significant to note that the court observed that "the jury could well have determined that the Conference took adequate precaution in having [the pastor] counseled and should not have been held to have reasonably foreseen that [he] would be likely to commit the acts of sexual assault." What is the significance of this case to churches and denominations? First, it is another in a long line of court rulings that have summarily concluded that churches and denominations are not liable on the basis of "respondeat superior" for the sexual misconduct of clergy, since such conduct is clearly outside the scope of any employment or agency relationship. Second, the case suggests that churches and denominations may be legally responsible on the basis of "negligent hiring" or "negligent retention" if they hire or retain a minister after learning that he or she was guilty of sexual misconduct in the past. However, the court emphasized that mere knowledge of previous incidents of sexual misconduct does not automatically create legal liability. Liability for negligent hiring or retention requires that the actions of the church or denomination created a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm to others. For example, if there is knowledge of only an isolated incident many years before, without any known repetition, then a jury might conclude that a church or denomination was not "negligent" in hiring or retaining such a person. Similarly, a jury might conclude that a minister who has undergone extensive counseling for previous incidents of sexual misconduct does not present a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm to others. Of course, a jury might also conclude that the church or denomination was negligent under such circumstances. Obviously, a church or denomination that has no knowledge of a minister's previous misconduct ordinarily cannot be legally responsible on the basis of negligent hiring or retention for injuries that he inflicts. Churches and denominations that are considering hiring a minister after learning of previous incidents of sexual misconduct must consider several factors, including (1) the nature and severity of the previous misconduct; (2) the frequency of the previous misconduct; (3) how long ago the misconduct occurred; (4) whether the minister received counseling; (5) the competency and effectiveness of any counseling received; (6) the likelihood that the minister will repeat the same type of misconduct now; (7) the possibility of legal liability if a jury concludes, on the basis of all the evidence, that the church or denomination was negligent in hiring the minister. The same considerations apply if a church or denomination learns of previous incidents of misconduct after hiring a minister, since a jury might conclude that the organization was negligent in retaining the individual. Churches and denominations that decide, after evaluating the evidence, to hire or retain clergy after learning of previous incidents of sexual misconduct must recognize that they are assuming a significant legal risk. They should take steps to reduce the risk of repeat behavior. Such steps might include professional counseling and assessment, periodic evaluation by church officials, and limiting certain "high-risk" activities. Mt. Zion State Bank v. Central Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, 556 N.E.2d 1270 (Ill. App. 1990).

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Posted: September 3, 1990
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