• Key point. A church ordinarily will not be legally responsible for the sexual molestation of a child on church property or during a church activity unless it was negligent in hiring or supervising the molester.
• Key point. Church leaders who allow a person to work with children despite evidence of previous misconduct are subjecting the church to possible civil liability on the basis of negligence. Liability will depend on a number of factors, including the age, nature, and credibility of the evidence.
1. A Massachusetts court ruled that a diocese probably was not liable for the sexual molestation of a child by a priest more than twenty years ago. An adult woman sued a diocese, claiming that it was responsible for injuries she sustained when she was molested by a priest more than twenty years ago when she was four or five years old. The court noted that "the only shred of evidence" that the diocese had notice of the priest's pedophiliac propensities before the time of the victim's molestation was a response to a question in a 1963 confidential investigation of the priest. The question asked "has he conducted himself with persons of the other sex in such a way as to cause scandal, criticism or suspicion?" The answer to this question was "yes." The court concluded that "it is doubtful that the questionnaire's answer to this question alone would be sufficient to permit a jury to reasonably infer that the diocese had notice of [the priest's] proclivities in regard to possible molestation of a young female child prior to the incidents alleged in this case" and that it "would be inclined" to dismiss the case against the diocese if this were the "only evidence bearing on notice to the diocese of [the priest's] misconduct." However, the court refused to dismiss the case (and allowed it to proceed to trial) because the diocese had wrongfully withheld this document in response to a court order to turn over all evidence pertaining to the priest. The court concluded that the diocese's failure to turn over this document "constituted serious and culpable non-compliance with the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure and with this court's express order where, as here, the production of the 1963 Report could lead to the discovery of other evidence concerning the diocese's knowledge about [the priest's] sexual activities."