Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Ministers' and Churches' Liability for Sexual Misconduct
Who can be found liable for a minister's misconduct?
Key point. Ministers who engage in sexual contacts with adults may be legally responsible for their behavior on a number of grounds, including breach of a fiduciary duty and outrageous conduct. In addition, their employing church may be responsible for their behavior on the basis of negligent hiring, negligent supervision, outrageous conduct, and ratification. The courts can resolve such claims so long as they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine.

A Colorado court ruled that a minister, his church, and a denominational agency could be sued by a woman with whom the minister had sexual contacts. A woman (the victim) attended a church for a few years, and began to volunteer her services for a variety of activities including the remodeling of a classroom. She engaged in these volunteer services on the recommendation of a therapist who suggested that she work in a "safe environment" to overcome her fears of the workplace. The victim's volunteer work caused her to come in contact with her minister after normal working hours. On one occasion the minister approached her while she was remodeling a classroom, began caressing her back, and told her "I love you Dianne, you mean so much to me." Following this incident the victim became physically ill and cried. A few days later, the minister called the victim into his office where the two of them sat next to each other on a small couch. The minister again caressed her and expressed his love for her. Following a third incident, the victim informed two other women in the church about the minister's behavior, and one responded, "Oh my God, not you too." A few months later a denominational agency with which the church was affiliated held a meeting in response to a formal complaint it had received regarding the minister's conduct. Six women attended this meeting, and all described similar incidents of unwelcome verbal comments and physical contact involving the minister. As a result of this meeting, the minister was suspended. The victim later sued the minister, her church, and the denominational agency. She claimed that the minister breached his fiduciary duty toward her, and committed outrageous conduct. She claimed that the church and denominational agency breached their fiduciary duty toward her, and also engaged in negligent hiring, negligent supervision, outrageous conduct, and ratification of the minister's actions. In particular, the victim alleged that the agency had been made aware of at least one prior act of sexual misconduct involving the minister, and was aware that he had a problem with alcohol abuse. The church and the victim reached an out of court settlement, and a trial court returned a verdict against the minister and denominational agency. The case was appealed, and a state appeals court affirmed the trial court's decision.

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