• Key point. Churches and denominational agencies will not be legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for a minister's sexual misconduct if they were not aware of previous similar incidents. It is knowledge of such incidents that imposes a duty of supervision. Further, the fact that church members or even employees are aware of a previous incident does not put the church on notice-unless a member or employee was acting as an agent of the church at the time he or she became aware of the previous misconduct.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a Catholic Diocese could not be sued as a result of an alleged sexual relationship that began when a woman began a counseling relationship with a priest who served as a hospital chaplain and counselor. The chaplain met with and counseled with a woman (the "victim") with respect to medical and emotional problems she was experiencing after the death of her baby. After her release from the hospital, the victim continued to meet with the chaplain. The dined together, visited art museums, attended pro—life rallies, exchanged gifts, and discussed politics, personal problems, and life in general. The victim viewed the priest as her pastoral counselor during these meetings, because he gave her advice to help her cope with stress and depression. On one occasion the priest invited the victim to his family's cabin, where they engaged sexual intercourse. Sexual relations continued for another year, until the victim informed a bishop of the affair. The victim later sued the chaplain and diocese. She claimed that the diocese was legally responsible for the chaplain's misconduct on the basis of negligent supervision as well as a state law imposing civil liability on therapists who engage in sexual contact with counselees. The victim conceded that the diocese was not aware of her affair with the chaplain until she disclosed it to the bishop. However, she claimed that the diocese "should have known" that the chaplain posed a risk to female counselees because of an incident that happened a few years before. A parish priest heard the chaplain scream from his apartment in a rectory late one evening. The priest rushed to the apartment where he found the chaplain restraining a woman by straddling her body and pinning her arms to the floor with his hands. The chaplain was bleeding from a bite wound to his wrist. The priest separated the two, and escorted the woman out of the rectory. He did not report this incident to the bishop or any other representative of the diocese because he assumed that the chaplain had been defending himself against an attack by the woman, rather than engaging in any inappropriate sexual or intimate conduct. A trial court threw out the lawsuit, but a state appeals court reinstated the case. The diocese appealed to the state supreme court, asserting that any resolution of the woman's claim of negligent supervision of the chaplain would violate the first amendment's "nonestablishment of religion" clause.