Many ministers have received anonymous letters. Some, such as those expressing criticism of a sermon or music, have little legal significance. But some accuse a staff member or volunteer of misconduct, and these messages may be legally significant depending on what they communicate and how they are handled.
Church leaders should consider the following points when deciding how to respond to anonymous letters that accuse someone of misconduct:
1. Ignoring anonymous letters
Some pastors adopt a policy of never reading anonymous letters, and some periodically inform the congregation of this policy. For some, this is a way of avoiding criticism. But for others it stems from a conviction that the views of persons who are unwilling to identify themselves are not worthy of consideration. But as noted below, such a response to anonymous letters may expose a pastor and church to liability.
Example 1. Several adult males (the "plaintiffs") sued a private high school and members of the school board of trustees (the "defendants"), claiming they had been sexually molested by the school's football coach, and that the defendants were legally responsible for these wrongful acts as a result of their inadequate and negligent response to numerous complaints of inappropriate sexual behavior by the coach.
The coach was employed by the school from 1966 through 1991. The plaintiffs alleged that in the 1970s the school's principal received several anonymous letters accusing the coach of "doing terrible things to your students." The principal threw out the letters and later testified that "unsigned complaints just should be tossed."