Church Liability for the Sexual Misconduct of Ministers

A California court renders a questionable decision.

A California court renders a questionable decision-Roman Catholic Bishop v. Superior Court, 50 Cal. Rptr.2d 399 (Cal. App. 1996)

[Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

Article summary. A California court ruled that a Catholic church was not responsible on the basis of negligent hiring for a priest’s acts of child molestation, since they had not been aware of any similar incidents of misconduct at the time the priest was employed. Further, the church could not be liable for the victim’s injuries on the basis of negligent supervision, since most if not all of the priest’s acts did not occur in the course of any official church duties and did not occur on church premises. The most astonishing aspect of the court’s ruling was its conclusion that a church, like any employer, can be sued on the basis of invasion of privacy or sexual harassment if it inquires into a prospective employee’s past sexual behavior. This conclusion is unfortunate, since it may put children at greater risk in California and in any other state that reaches a similar conclusion. This important ruling is addressed fully in this feature article.

A California court reached the shocking conclusion that a Catholic church did not have a legal duty to make inquiries into a priest’s sexual history at the time he was employed since doing so would have exposed it to liability for invasion of privacy and sexual harassment! Here we see the absurd results that can occur when legal rights are carried to extremes. If this lamentable ruling is not reversed by the state supreme court, California may become a magnet for pedophiles seeking employment with religious and secular employers alike, free from inquiries that might reveal the danger they pose to innocent children. This article will review the facts of this case, summarize the court’s ruling, and assess its significance to other churches.


Note. The facts summarized below are as stated by the victim in her lawsuit.

A 15—year—old female (the “victim”) claimed to have been “regularly and repeatedly sexually molested” by her parish priest. She sued her church, alleging that it negligently hired, retained and supervised the priest because it should have known of his dangerous propensities as a sexual exploiter of children. Specifically, the victim alleged that

the priest was under the direct employ, supervision, agency and control of the church, and that his employment duties “included providing for the spiritual and emotional needs of, and religious instruction for, parishioners, including providing for the proper supervision of minor parishioners entrusted to his care”

the diocese and its churches had held themselves out to be a safe environment in which persons could worship, and they thereby “entered into an express or implied duty to properly supervise her and to provide her with a reasonably safe spiritual environment”

the church assumed a duty to the victim by “holding [the priest] out to the public as a competent and trustworthy Roman Catholic priest and counselor of high morals”

The victim claimed that the church breached its duty to her by exposing her to a priest “who was an unfit agent with dangerous propensities, and by not properly supervising her.” She claimed the church “should reasonably have known of [his] dangerous propensities as a child sexual exploiter” and “despite such knowledge, [it] negligently retained or failed to supervise [him] in a position of trust and authority” where he was able to harm her. The victim claimed that the church failed to provide reasonable supervision of the priest, and failed to reasonably investigate him and warn her.

The church asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that it was not negligent. It insisted that it did not know and had no reason to suspect that the priest posed any risk to parishioners prior to the victim’s accusations. In essence, the church argued it had no civil duty to investigate its employees and the constitutional requirement separating church and state barred the victim’s civil action for negligent hiring and supervision of a priest. A trial court rejected the church’s argument, and the case was appealed.

The court’s ruling

A state appeals court dismissed the victim’s lawsuit against the church. The court’s reasoning is summarized below.

Negligent hiring

The court acknowledged that “an employer may be liable to a third person for the employer’s negligence in hiring or retaining an employee who is incompetent or unfit.” However, the court qualified this rule by noting that

one who employs another to act for him is not liable … merely because the one employed is incompetent, vicious, or careless. If liability results it is because, under the circumstances, the employer has not taken the care which a prudent man would take in selecting the person for the business in hand …. Liability results … not because of the relation of the parties, but because the employer … had reason to believe that an undue risk of harm would exist because of the employment.

The court noted that the harm the victim suffered was criminal sexual abuse of a minor by her priest. It observed: “There is nothing in the record to indicate [the priest] had a criminal history or had been previously implicated in sexual abuse of a minor. Thus the church could not have had antecedent knowledge of [his] purported criminal dangerousness.” That is, evidence that the priest had engaged in sexual misconduct with adults did not necessarily make him a risk to children. The court observed that the victim failed to prove any facts “showing an undue risk of harm that [the priest] would commit criminal child sexual abuse if he were employed by the church.”

But even if evidence of sexual misconduct with adults would be relevant in evaluating a priest’s risk of committing similar acts upon children, the church “had no actual knowledge of [his] sexual activity with [her] or anyone else until it heard [her] mother’s report and [the priest’s] admissions.” In other words, the church could not be responsible for the priest’s molestation of the victim on the basis of negligent hiring if it had no knowledge of any prior misconduct by the priest at the time he was hired or ordained.

The court referred to a prior case in California in which a court ruled that a church could be liable on the basis of negligent hiring for a pastor’s acts of child molestation since there was evidence that the church was aware of prior acts of molestation by the pastor prior to the time he was hired. The court concluded that this case was not relevant since the victim had failed to prove that the church was aware of any prior acts of child molestation by the priest at the time he was employed. Evidence of prior acts of sexual misconduct with adults was not enough.

The court referred to the following testimony by other priests and church officials in support of its conclusion that the church had not been guilty of negligent hiring when it employed the priest:

An assistant to the bishop of the diocese testified that until the day the victim’s mother informed him of her daughter’s accusations, no one in the church had received any report of misconduct or wrongdoing by the priest. The assistant and bishop later met with the priest, who admitted to the molestation of the victim, and affairs with an adult female in California and two adult females in the Philippines. This was the first knowledge anyone in the church had of the priest’s affairs.

A priest who shared a residence with the offending priest for several months prior to the alleged acts of molestation testified that he “never saw any sign that [the priest] had any problems with his celibacy,” had pornographic magazines or that he paid particular attention to any girls in the parish. He never received any complaints about the priest.

Another priest who lived with the offending priest for two years prior to the incidents in question testified he “never saw any signs [the priest] had any problems with his celibacy.” He never received complaints about the priest and “never had any reason to suspect that he had or would engage in sexual conduct with anyone, whether an adult or a minor.”

Another priest who worked closely with the offending priest in 1990 and 1991 testified that he “never became aware of any facts which called for [the priest’s] discipline” or that the priest “had any problems with his promise of chastity as a priest.”

A church official testified that since the priest was ordained in the Philippines before coming to California, “there was no duty on the part of the Diocese of San Diego to screen or test him for matters relating to sexuality, unless and until a sexual problem manifested itself. Under canon law, priests, like the rest of the faithful, have a right to privacy.”

The victim also claimed that the diocese was negligent in hiring the priest because, as part of its voluntarily screening process, it failed to “ask him whether he had problems with his vows of celibacy.” The victim claimed that if the priest had been asked, he “would have admitted that he had two sexual relationships in the Philippines and one here in San Diego with a parishioner. Undoubtedly, armed with this knowledge, any reasonable employer would have done an even more extensive investigation and most certainly would not have entrusted the care of minor girls to him without very close supervision.” The court disagreed. It noted that even if the diocese had learned of the priest’s prior sexual affairs with adults

it is illogical to conclude [it] should have anticipated [he] would commit sexual crimes on a minor. More important, the legal duty of inquiry [the victim] seeks to impose on the church as an employer would violate the employee’s privacy rights. Privacy is a fundamental liberty implicitly guaranteed by the federal Constitution and is explicitly guaranteed under the California Constitution as an inalienable right. The right encompasses privacy in one’s sexual matters and is not limited to the marital relationship. Although the right to privacy is not absolute, it yields only to a compelling state interest. Here there was no compelling state interest to require the employer to investigate the sexual practices of its employee. Moreover, the employer who queries employees on sexual behavior is subject to claims for invasion of privacy and sexual harassment. Coit Drapery Cleaners, Inc. v. Sequoia Ins. Co., 18 Cal. Rptr.2d 692 (1993).

Similarly [the victim’s] contention the church should have required [the priest] to undergo a psychological evaluation before hiring him is unavailing. An individual’s right to privacy also encompasses mental privacy. We conclude the church did not fail to use due care in hiring [the priest].

Negligent supervision

The victim also claimed that the diocese negligently supervised the priest. The court rejected this argument, noting that “nearly all” of the acts of molestation occurred when the priest took the victim from her home to various public places and hotels.” The court added:

Similarly, there is no special relationship here creating a heightened duty of care based on a priest/parishioner relationship. In the context of a claim for negligent counseling, our Supreme Court explained in Nally v. Grace Community Church, supra, 253 Cal. Rptr. 97, that the legislature has exempted clergy from licensing requirements applicable to other counselors. That exemption is in recognition “that access to the clergy for counseling should be free from state imposed counseling standards, and that “the secular state is not equipped to ascertain the competence of counseling when performed by those affiliated with religious organizations.”

© Copyright 1997, 1998 by Church Law & Tax Report. All rights reserved. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided 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. Church Law & Tax Report, PO Box 1098, Matthews, NC 28106. Reference Code: m67 m86 c0297

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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