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Church Not Liable for Sexual Abuse of Counseled Woman

Federal court rules church not responsible for actions of deacon.

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.

A federal court in Wyoming ruled that a church and diocese were not liable on the basis of negligent training or negligent supervision for a church worker's sexual abuse of a woman he was counseling. In 1991, a man ("Gary") became interested in becoming a deacon for a Roman Catholic Diocese. He discussed his interest with the bishop, and ultimately applied to a deacon training program. As part of his application, Gary submitted various materials, including letters of recommendation and a report from a psychological evaluation. Nothing in his materials raised any red flags so the bishop accepted him into the deacon training program. During his training, no one ever expressed any concerns about him to the bishop.

In 1996, Gary finished his training, and he was ordained as a deacon. He was assigned to a local church within the diocese. The bishop retired a few years later, but during the entire time he knew Gary, no one ever expressed any concerns about him.

A few years after Deacon Gary was ordained, a church member (the plaintiff) lost two members of her family in a tragic accident. She turned to her church to help her cope with the loss. She met with her pastor, who referred her to Gary for bereavement counseling. The plaintiff and Gary remained friends over the next several years. In 2007, their relationship became sexual, even though Gary was married to another woman at the time.

Although their sexual relationship was consensual, the plaintiff came to believe that Gary is a sexual perpetrator who "groomed" her for sex from the very start of their relationship, and that this grooming process culminated in his sexually abusing her starting in 2007. She was never able to inform church leaders of the affair. The pastor later testified that he was never aware of any sexual relationship between the plaintiff and Gary. He also testified that no one ever expressed any concerns to him about Gary.

Despite feeling sexually abused by Gary, the plaintiff stayed in the relationship until it completely unraveled in 2008 when Gary allegedly became physically abusive.

Several years later, the plaintiff sued the church, diocese, and various church officials (the "church defendants") claiming that they negligently trained and supervised Gary, and were vicariously liable for his sexual abuse.

Vicarious Liability

The plaintiff claimed that the church defendants were vicariously liable for Gary's actions on the basis of the legal doctrine of respondeat superior. This doctrine imposes liability on employers for the negligent acts of their employees committed in the course of their employment. The court rejected this claim on the ground that Gary was not acting within the scope of his employment when he allegedly sexually abused the plaintiff. It noted that "an employee's conduct is within the scope of employment only if it (1) is the type of conduct the employee was hired to perform, (2) occurs within the authorized time and space limits, and (3) is intended, at least in part, to serve the employer." In this case, Gary's alleged sexual abuse of the plaintiff did not fall within the scope of his employment:

Sexually abusing parishioners is not the type of conduct Gary was hired to perform; it was not part of his job description. And … nothing in the record indicates that his conduct was motivated by anything other than a desire to satisfy his own sexual impulses. Thus, his sexual abuse of the plaintiff was outside the scope of his employment and the church defendants can't be held vicariously liable for that conduct. [This] conclusion is consistent with the conclusion of virtually every court that has addressed this issue.

Negligent Training and Supervision

The plaintiff also claimed the church defendants were directly liable to her for negligently training and supervising Gary as a church deacon. The court noted that both of these negligence claims require showing that the church defendants "knew or should have known of Gary's propensity for sexual abuse." However, the plaintiff "has no evidence to support such a showing. Thus, the Court is constrained to conclude that the church defendants are entitled to summary judgment on her negligence claims as well."

The court noted that an essential element of a negligent training claim is that "the employer knew or should have known about a specific problem requiring a specific training addressed to that problem." Similarly, in the case of a negligent supervision claim, a plaintiff must establish that "the employer knew or should have known of the employee's propensity for the conduct that caused the injury before the injury occurred." The "critical element" in both negligent training and negligent supervision claims is "the employer's prior knowledge of the agent's propensities to create the specific danger resulting in damage."

In this case, this means that "a necessary element for both of the plaintiff's negligence claims is that the church defendants knew or should have known about Gary's propensity for sexual abuse. But she has no evidence to support that element of her claims so those claims necessarily fail and the church defendants are entitled to summary judgment."

For their part, the church defendants "produced evidence that they never had any knowledge of Gary's propensity for sexual abuse." The plaintiff admitted under oath that she never notified them or anyone else about Gary's sexual abuse. The bishop testified that no one ever expressed any concerns to him about Gary, much less concerns about sexual abuse. And the pastor testified that no one ever expressed any concerns or made any allegations of sexual improprieties against Gary to him or anyone in church leadership. He also testified that he had no knowledge of the plaintiff's sexual relationship with Gary.

The court concluded, "In short, the church defendants have produced evidence demonstrating that they neither knew nor should have known about Gary's propensity for sexual abuse and the plaintiff has produced nothing to the contrary. Her claims for negligent training and supervision thus fail because she has no evidence to support that necessary element of her claims."

The court noted an additional problem with the plaintiff's negligent supervision claim: "She has no evidence that Gary's alleged acts of sexual abuse took place on the church defendants' property … . An employer has a duty to supervise an employee acting outside the scope of employment only if the employee is on the employer's premises or using the employer's [personal property]. Here, the plaintiff can't point to any facts showing that Gary's acts of sexual abuse took place on the church defendants' property. Her negligent supervision claim thus fails for that reason as well."

What This Means For Churches:

The most important aspect of this case is the court's analysis of the plaintiff's negligent training claim. Churches, denominational agencies, and even seminaries, occasionally are sued for an employee's wrongful acts on the basis of negligent training. This case demonstrates that negligent training claims cannot succeed unless a plaintiff, at a minimum, is able to establish that a church knew of an employee's propensity to commit wrongful acts, failed to provide adequate training to address that propensity, and this failure contributed to the plaintiff's injuries. 2013 WL 1791023 (D.Wyo. 2013).

Key point 10-05. A church may be liable on the basis of negligent selection for a worker's molestation of an adult if the church was negligent in the selection of the worker. Negligence means a failure to exercise reasonable care, and so negligent selection refers to a failure to exercise reasonable care in the selection of the worker. Liability based on negligent selection may be imposed upon a church for the acts of employees and volunteers.
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.
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Posted:
  • April 30, 2014

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