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Issues that affect ministers and churches
Can a Denominational Office Be Held Liable for a Pastor's Sexual Misconduct?
The answer depends on several factors.

Key point 10-05.2. Some courts have found churches not liable on the basis of negligent selection for the sexual misconduct of a minister or other church worker involving another adult since the church exercised reasonable care in the selection of the worker.

Key point 10-10.2. Many courts have ruled that the First Amendment prevents churches from being legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for the sexual misconduct of ministers.

Key point 10-13.2. Several courts have refused to hold churches and denominational agencies liable on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the sexual misconduct of a minister. In some cases, this result is based on First Amendment considerations.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a denominational agency was not liable on the basis of breach of a fiduciary duty, or negligent hiring or supervision, for a sexual relationship initiated by a pastor in the course of a counseling relationship with an adult member of his congregation. A married woman (the "plaintiff") went to her pastor for counseling regarding concerns she had about a relative. During their initial counseling session the pastor indicated that he could "easily fall in love" with the plaintiff. The following day, the plaintiff began regular meetings with the pastor concerning her own marital problems. She left her husband a few weeks later and began a sexual relationship with the pastor. A few months later she filed for divorce.

A church member informed the denominational office (the "regional church") of her concern that the pastor was "getting involved with a woman in the parish." The member stated that she wished to remain anonymous and that she did not want to identify the woman she suspected as involved with the pastor. She did not disclose that the pastor was counseling the unidentified woman. An officer of the regional church informed the member that he could not "respond to hearsay and rumors of suspicions from anonymous people," noting that there was no suggestion "that anything illegal was occurring." He asked the member to have someone with first-hand knowledge of any sexual relationship contact him. A few months later the member again contacted the regional church, and informed an officer that the pastor was inappropriately involved with an unidentified female parishioner, adding that "there were perhaps two or three other people that may be involved" who all insisted on anonymity. The officer again asked whether she could "get somebody to come forward," emphasizing that she "bend every effort" to encourage an informant to come directly to him. Again, no one did so.

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