Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Pastor’s Multiple Acts of Sexual Misconduct Not Necessarily Protected by First Amendment

Key point 4-02.03. A number of defenses are available to one accused of defamation. These include truth, statements made in the course of judicial proceedings, consent, and self-defense. In addition, statements made to church members about a matter of common interest to members are protected by a “qualified privilege,” meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless they are made with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the statements knew that they were false or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. This privilege will not apply if the statements are made to nonmembers.

Key point 10-09.1. Some courts have found churches liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation on the ground that the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the victim or of its own programs and activities.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that finding a church liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a pastor’s multiple acts of sexual misconduct with adult women was not necessarily barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom. In 2003, a church hired a new pastor. The pastor was respected and considered a “dynamic” and “very talented speaker.” He engaged in sexual relationships with several women in the congregation, as summarized below.

Victim 1

A couple in the church were members of the church at the time the pastor arrived. In 2005, the couple were struggling with infertility, which was taking an emotional toll on the wife. Upon learning of her struggles, the pastor began making unsolicited phone calls to her cellphone, inquiring into her personal life and fertility. In 2006, the couple were in the process of seeking an international adoption, and the wife decided to seek counseling from the pastor to help her cope. The pastor invited her to comes see him “at his study,” which was in the basement of his home. The pastor locked the door to his office during the initial counseling session, and engaged in sexual contact and intercourse. The wife consistently maintained that the sex was against her will. Following the encounter, the pastor continued to call the wife, insisting that her husband was not meeting her needs. He informed her that her emotional struggles stemmed from “sexual frustration” and unhappiness in marriage, and that he was “protecting” her by helping her release her sexual energy. He also persuaded her to loan him $70,000.

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