Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Minister's Liability for Youth Director's Sexual Misconduct
Who is liable for a church worker's misconduct?

A Louisiana state appeals court ruled that a minister was not legally responsible for the sexual molestation of 4 children by a church youth director. The parents of the 4 children alleged that the pastor had counseled privately with the youth director, and had learned of previous incidents of child molestation. The parents asserted that the pastor had breached his "counselor's duty" to warn them of "potential future criminal activity" by his counselee. They also asserted that the pastor had been aware of the youth director's molestation of their children for more than a year without disclosing the fact to anyone. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the parents appealed. A state appeals court upheld the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit. The court began its opinion by observing: "We further recognize the legal principle that [a person] has no duty to control the conduct of a third person so as to prevent him from causing physical harm to another unless a special relationship exists between the [person] and the other so as to afford the other a right to protection …. Where such relationship exists, the law currently characterizes the duty as one to warn of risks of which the actor knew or should have known." The court concluded that the pastor had no duty to warn the parents of the youth director's dangerous propensities, since no "special relationship" existed between them which would "afford them a right of protection from [the youth director's] criminal conduct." The court continued: "There are no allegations that the alleged molestations occurred in connection with [the youth director's] functions as youth director or that the parents and children are members of the [church]. The allegations … do not show that [the youth director] acted under the auspices of [the pastor]. Simply stated, the allegations do not state that a special relationship existed between [the pastor and the parents], therefore, [the parents] were owed no duty by [the pastor]." This case is important, for it is one of the few decisions to address the issue of a minister's duty to warn potential victims of a counselee's misconduct. According to this decision, such a duty does not exist unless a "special relationship" exists between the pastor and the potential victims. The court did not define a "special relationship" in the context of pastoral counseling, other than to say that such a relationship does not exist (in cases of child molestation) if the following elements are present: (1) the acts of molestation do not occur in the course of a church activity, (2) the victim (and the victim's family) are not members of the church, and (3) the molester did not act under the authority of the pastor. Miller v. Everett, 576 So.2d 1162 (La. App. 1991).

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Posted: May 1, 1992
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