Key point 4-11.1. Clergy who engage in sexual contact with an adult or minor are subject to civil liability on the basis of several legal theories. They also are subject to criminal liability.
A New Jersey appeals court affirmed the prison sentence of a pastor who engaged in “sexting” and sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl.
A 14-year-old girl (the “victim”) and her family lived across the street from the church they attended. The victim developed a close relationship with one of the church’s three pastors (the “defendant”). The two of them began texting each other. On one occasion, he hugged her in a way that made her uncomfortable in a backroom of the church. On another occasion, she went to speak with him in the church and he led her into a room with a couch where he initiated sexual contact with her. When he tried to flip her over, he fell and she told him to stop, which he did.
That same day the victim told her uncle what had happened. She did not tell her mother until later. Her uncle confronted the defendant and told him to apologize to the victim.
The victim continued to text the defendant. She eventually told one of the other pastors what the defendant had done, but she asked that the police not become involved. This pastor promptly notified the prosecutor’s office, which called defendant in to discuss the allegation. The defendant then spoke to the victim’s mother, admitting he “went too far.” The defendant was charged with endangering the welfare of a child and criminal sexual contact for which he was sentenced to an aggregate term of six years in prison, parole supervision for life, and additional mandatory penalties.
What this means for churches
The defendant’s criminal offenses were based, in part, on his sexually oriented text messages with the victim. In many states the transmission of sexually explicit text messages (“sexting”) via a cell phone or other electronic device constitutes a crime. Such messages also can be used as evidence in civil lawsuits. For example, assume that an adolescent female in a church youth group claims that the youth pastor had nonconsensual sexual contact with her. She sues the church, claiming that it is responsible for the pastor’s acts on the basis of negligent hiring and supervision. The victim subpoenas the youth pastor’s text messages to establish the truth of her claims.
Several courts have addressed the issue of criminal liability of pastors for engaging in sexting. Here is one example:
A court used sexually explicit text messages between a youth pastor and a female member of the youth group to corroborate her account of sexual exploitation. The court sentenced the pastor to a prison sentence of four years to life. 2009 WL 1476934 (Colo. App. 2009).
For other examples, see my article “Defending Youth Ministries from 8 Critical Risks.”
Churches should adopt a written policy banning all pastors and lay volunteers engaged in youth or children’s ministries from engaging in any form of private messaging with minors. Violations of this policy must not be tolerated. Failure to consistently enforce the policy not only will expose the church to civil liability, but also will expose minors to harm.
Contact your local public school district for assistance in formulating your policy. This can have several important benefits, including:
- A policy drafted by your local public school district will provide the church with helpful assistance in drafting your own policy;
- The fact that your local public school district has enacted such a policy, with sanctions for violations, will underscore the need for the church to do likewise;
- Churches that align their practice with the public schools reduce their exposure to civil liability based on negligence since they are emulating the practice of an agency (the public schools) of the state.
State v. Lopez-Durango, 2018 WL 4956853 (N.J. App. 2018).