Why Your Church Needs Counseling Policies

One case illustrates why you need to be proactive in your counseling procedures.

An Illinois court ruled that a woman who was sexually seduced by the pastor during marriage counseling could sue the pastor, a deacon, and the church.

The woman and her husband claimed that during the course of marital counseling the pastor initiated and continued a sexual relationship with the woman, thereby aggravating the problems in her marriage, alienating them from their church and church community, and causing them emotional and psychological damage. The couple sued the pastor on the following grounds: intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent infliction of emotional distress; breach of fiduciary duty; alienation of affections; assault and battery; and marriage counselor malpractice.

The couple also sued a deacon for slander and negligent supervision of the pastor. And they sued the church for negligence. Specifically, they claimed that the church was negligent in failing to supervise the pastor despite the fact that it knew, or should have known, that his previous attractions to female congregation members created an unreasonable risk that his religious and marital counseling would be ineffective and potentially detrimental to those being counseled.

The couple insisted that the church had a duty to all members of the congregation to use reasonable care in training, assigning, controlling, and supervising its pastor with respect to providing religious and counseling services. They claimed that the pastor’s actions damaged them in a number of ways, including the wife’s contraction of two venereal diseases, medical bills incurred in treating these venereal diseases, psychological damages, counseling expenses, and deterioration in their marriage. The couple’s case was initially dismissed, but, since the matter was not related to doctrine, a later court reversed the decision and allowed the lawsuit to hold the pastor, deacon, and church responsible.

What You Need to Know About Counseling Risks

  1. A church may be legally responsible for a pastor’s sexual contact with an adult counselee, if it was negligent in hiring or supervising the pastor.
  2. Church leaders who ignore accusations of sexual misconduct by a church employee are subjecting their church to possible civil liability on the basis of negligence. They may also be subjecting their church to punitive damages and themselves to personal liability, if their actions constitute gross negligence.
Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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