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Denominations—Legal Liability

A Pennsylvania court ruled that a church and diocese could be liable for a priest's acts of child molestation.

Key point 4-08. Every state has a child abuse reporting law that requires persons designated as mandatory reporters to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse. Ministers are mandatory reporters in many states. Some states exempt ministers from reporting child abuse if they learned of the abuse in the course of a conversation protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Ministers may face criminal and civil liability for failing to report child abuse.
Key point 10-16.01. Under the principle of comparative negligence, a church is liable only to the extent of its percentage share of fault for an accident or injury.
Key point 10-17.01. Punitive damages are monetary damages awarded by a jury "in addition to compensation for a loss sustained, in order to punish, and make an example of, the wrongdoer." They are awarded when a person's conduct is reprehensible and outrageous. Most church insurance policies exclude punitive damages. This means that a jury award of punitive damages represents an uninsured risk.
Key point 10-18.01. Some courts have found denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches on the basis of a number of grounds, including negligence and agency.

A Pennsylvania court ruled that a church and diocese could be liable for a priest's acts of child molestation.

A Catholic priest engaged in repeated acts of sexual molestation with a 10-year-old boy (the "victim"). These acts continued until the victim was 17 years old. The victim later sued the priest, his former church, and the diocese. The victim claimed that the "church defendants" (the church and diocese) negligently hired, supervised, and retained the priest, and deliberately ignored pedophilic behavior of priests in general. After an 11-week trial, the jury found the priest and church defendants liable, and awarded compensatory damages of $519,000 and punitive damages of $1 million. The church defendants appealed on several grounds, some of which are described below.

First Amendment

The church defendants argued that the first amendment religion clauses, which bar excessive entanglement between church and state and guaranty religious autonomy, prevented the civil courts from resolving negligent hiring, supervising, and retention claims against clergy. Incredibly, the church defendants' attorneys failed to raise this issue at trial, and so the appeals court ruled that it could not be raised on appeal.

A Pattern of Ignoring Pedophilic Behavior

The church defendants argued that the trial court erred in finding them liable on the basis of a "pattern" or practice of ignoring pedophilic behavior by priests, and that the prejudicial impact of this evidence far outweighed its relevance and on that basis should not have been presented to the jury. The court disagreed. It concluded, "The course of dealing of the church organization with pedophilic behavior within the church, if any, could tend to establish how the church reacted to [the priest's] pedophilic behavior [in this case] if it knew or should have known about it." The court also noted that the priest had testified that his fear of losing a parish could have been affected by the church's having a policy of not acting on complaints of pedophilia, and, in this way, could have affected his engaging in sexual acts with minor males. The court concluded,

The prejudicial impact of the evidence concerning the knowledge of [the church defendants] concerning pedophilic activity of priests within the diocese was not so prejudicial as to outweigh its probative value …. The crucial issue with respect to [the church defendants'] liability is their knowledge when confronted with signs that [the priest] was engaging in improper conduct. Liability could attach … only if the jury determined that they "knew or should have known" that they should exercise control over [the priest]. Whether the priest was the first known priest-pedophile with whom [the church defendants] had experience is clearly relevant to a determination of whether they "should have known" about his improper conduct at some point prior to [the victim's] unfortunate experiences. Clearly an individual or organization which has been exposed to and has had some experience in dealing with a particular situation may better be able to recognize a subsequent, similar situation. Therefore, we reject [the church defendants'] assertion that there was a prejudicial taint in this matter such that the jury could not arrive at a proper verdict.

Failure to comply with Child Abuse Reporting Law

The trial court allowed the victim to introduce evidence showing that the church defendants failed to report incidents of sexual abuse to the police or other civil authorities. For example, the victim's attorney asked the bishop of the diocese during the trial whether he had ever reported incidents involving the sexual molestation of minors to the police or other agencies. The bishop testified that he had never done so. The victim insisted that this evidence showed the church defendants' knowledge of improper conduct by priests. The church defendants argued on appeal that this evidence was not relevant to any issue and should not have been allowed. In particular, they claimed that they had no duty to make such reports, and so their failure to do so did not prove that they failed to adequately investigate reports of sexual abuse.

The court concluded that the trial court acted properly in admitting evidence showing that the church defendants had not reported incidents of child molestation by priests to the civil authorities. It concluded,

[E]vidence that no reports were made to police or other authorities by [the church defendants] was relevant to a determination of whether they knew or should have known that such incidents were occurring. The extent of [their] actual or constructive knowledge was an issue material to whether they were negligent in supervising [the priest], and thus formed the basis of [the victim's] cause of action against them …. Accordingly, this evidence was both competent and relevant to a material issue, and therefore admissible subject to the trial court's sound discretion.

The court emphasized that the trial judge had given the jury the following warning, "The church defendants had no legal duty to report activities of a pedophilic natures to law enforcement authorities or to children or youth services or to government agencies. And any failure to do so can't be a basis for finding them liable under these theories. This testimony was permitted to be placed before you to permit plaintiffs to exclude those courses of action in terms of the investigation that the defendants did conduct as being possible steps that they took."

Comparative Negligence

The church defendants argued that the trial court erred in not allowing the defense of comparative negligence. The theory of comparative negligence assigns damages to defendants in proportion to their degree of fault. For example, had the jury determined the priest to be 90% at fault, and the church defendants only 10%, the church defendants would only have been liable for 10% of the jury's verdict. The court stressed that the theory of comparative negligence only applies to negligence. It then observed,

For several reasons, we share the trial court's concern about entering into a comparison of the parties' respective negligence in this case. First, it is problematic that [the priest's] conduct is central to the negligent acts alleged on the part of the [church defendants]. In the context of liability insurance coverage … pedophilic sexual abuse is intentional conduct on the part of the abuser, as a matter of law, and is not negligent conduct …. [S]ince [the priest's] acts of pedophilic sexual molestation were intentional, the doctrine of comparative negligence has no application here. The acts that directly caused the harm are, in essence, what must be compared. [The priest's] intentional act and the alleged negligence of [the victim] are not equal forms of conduct …. [C]omparative negligence is only an appropriate consideration in matters where there is negligence on the part of both the plaintiff and the defendant involved in causing the harm that results, not where the conduct of one is willful.

Punitive Damages

The appeals court reversed the trial court's award of $1 million in punitive damages against the church defendants. The court explained that punitive damages are designed to punish wrongdoers for reckless or wanton misconduct, and cannot be awarded on the basis of negligence. Therefore, to the extent that the church defendants' liability was based on negligence (in hiring, supervising, or retaining the priest), there was no basis for punitive damages.

Application. This case is important for the following reasons:

1. It illustrates the importance of making all available defenses at the trial stage. The church's first amendment defense was waived by its attorneys' failure to raise it at trial.

2. The court allowed the jury to consider the pattern of practice of the church defendants in ignoring pedophilic behavior by priests. Denominational leaders must bear this in mind when they learn of similar acts of misconduct by their own clergy. A practice of ignoring such incidents can be the basis for liability in future cases.

3. The court agreed with the church defendants that they had no legal duty to report incidents of child molestation by priests to civil authorities, and that they could not be found liable in this case for failing to report. However, the court ruled that it was appropriate for the jury to know whether the church defendants reported such incidents since this evidence tended to prove whether the church defendants were ignoring pedophilic behavior by priests. Denominational leaders should bear this ruling in mind. When confronted with credible evidence of child molestation by a minister, they should consult with legal counsel concerning the need to file a report under the relevant state's child abuse reporting law. While in many cases such a report will not be legally required (i.e., denominational leaders are not mandatory reporters, the incident does not involve reportable abuse under state law, or the incident occurred in another state), the making of a report may be viewed as evidence of an appropriate response to such claims. On the other hand, evidence that such incidents are not reported may be viewed later as evidence of a pattern of neglect. It is imperative for denominational leaders to consult with their own legal counsel on this issue. The same is true of local church leaders when they are confronted with allegations of child molestation by a church employee or volunteer. Even if there is no legal duty to report under state law, it may be advantageous to do so.

4. The court rejected comparative negligence in cases involving intentional misconduct (such as sexual molestation) by a defendant. This ruling removes a potent defense to churches in Pennsylvania.

5. The court ruled that punitive damages cannot be awarded if a defendant's liability is based on negligence. This is a huge victory for churches and denominational agencies in sexual misconduct cases. Churches and denominational agencies do not "intend" for such incidents to occur. Their liability ordinarily is based on negligence in the hiring, supervision, or retention of the wrongdoer. The court concluded that punitive damages are not available in such cases. There must be proof of intentional or criminal conduct. Since punitive damages are often the biggest component of a jury's award in sexual misconduct cases, and such damages are not covered by insurance, this aspect of the court's ruling will be of considerable relevance to churches and denominational agencies that are sued on account of the sexual misconduct of a minister, lay employee, or volunteer. Hutchison v. Luddy, 2000 WL 1585672 (Pa. 2000).

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Posted:
  • July 2, 2001

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