Editor’s Note: Child abuse scandals continue to garner widespread media attention as well as the attention of lawmakers nationwide. As more victims come forward, often years or decades after suffering alleged abuses, they learn their state’s statute of limitations prevent them from seeking damages from the perpetrator or, when relevant, the perpetrator’s employer through civil lawsuits. These time bars have become subject to changes—and in some instances, outright removals—by state legislatures in an effort to help victims.
This four-part series focuses on this continuing trend, helping churches and church leaders understand the potential ramifications. This part looks specifically at the legal, financial, and administrative tolls a church may face if a civil lawsuit dating back years or decades moves forward in the courts.
Church leaders must understand that their church is probably not in a financial position to respond to an abuse claim reaching back several decades, and that in some cases, liability for an abuse claim could extend to board members or even individual members.
The motivation behind states extending victims’ rights when it comes to abuse involving churches is both understandable and laudable: Legislators want to “give voice” to persons sexually abused as minors who, for whatever reason, were reluctant or unwilling to bring their claims in court.
After all, several studies have demonstrated that most child abuse victims find it difficult to seek remedies for their claims in civil court. This is often due to one or more of the following factors:
- Repressed memory of the abuse.
- Shame and embarrassment.
- An unwillingness to publicly disclose in court the details of the abuse.
- An unwillingness to testify in court regarding the details of the abuse.
- An unwillingness to confront one’s abuser in court.
- A reluctance to disclose the details of the abuse to family and friends who may know nothing about it.
But church leaders need to understand that if a church’s assets are below the amount a victim is seeking in court, and a church’s insurance coverage is insufficient to cover the claim, then the victim’s attorney may seek to recover damages against the personal assets of church board members.
Churches are financially ill-prepared to meet new claims
But many churches, schools and other defendants are not adequately positioned to answer for abuse that happened before current staff and members were born.
Unfortunately, insurance policies that are several years or decades old are often discarded by church staff who see no point in keeping them and adding to the general “clutter” in the church office, and most churches do not have liability insurance providing coverage for claims of sexual abuse alleged to have occurred years or decades in the past.
Even if liability insurance is available and no exception applies, the policy often will provide low limits of coverage for providing a defense and paying toward any damages awarded.
In any event, if a liability insurance policy for the year that a case of child abuse occurred is not available, then bankruptcy must be considered. This would involve identifying all church assets that are available to pay a sex abuse claim, including buildings, vehicles, bank accounts, and so on.
Furthermore, liability might extend to board members or even individual members if a church’s assets are far below the amount a victim is seeking in court.
Federal law and the laws of most states protect volunteers and uncompensated board members of tax-exempt corporations (including churches) from personal liability for their decisions as members of the board.
However, there are exceptions.
- In most states, the immunity of uncompensated church board members does not extend to willful and wanton acts or gross negligence, or to board members of unincorporated churches. To illustrate, if an old claim of child abuse occurred because of a failure by the board to institute reasonable protective policies and procedures, it is possible that this will constitute gross negligence. This will expose the board members to the personal liability exception.
- Immunity statutes providing limited relief to church board members only apply to uncompensated directors. This is an important point for church leaders to understand. Some churches provide limited amounts of compensation to board members. These may include a gift or stipend at Christmas, or non-accountable expense reimbursements. Even limited forms of compensation jeopardize the significant protection that uncompensated directors enjoy from personal liability, making it important for church leaders to review any future examples of compensation provided by the church to its board members.
Also note that some courts have suggested that members of an unincorporated church may be personally liable for the acts and obligations of other members, or the church itself, opening the door for victims to recover damages from individual members if the church cannot pay out of its own assets and insurance.
Understanding insurance is key
Clergy and church leaders evaluating possible abuse claims past or present need to understand the insurance coverage their churches possess (or possessed in the past). Of particular importance is whether a church secured an occurrence policy or a “claims made” policy.
Claims made and occurence insurance policies
“Occurrence” policies only cover injuries that occur during the policy period, regardless of when a claim is made.
Advantages to an “occurence” policy:
- Covers any injury that occurs during the policy period, regardless of when a lawsuit is filed
- No “prior acts” coverage needed if a church maintains a succession of “occurrence” policies
- Does not cover lawsuits filed during the policy period for injuries occurring prior to the policy period.
- Insurance premiums usually higher than for a “claims made” policy.
A “claims made” policy covers injuries for which a claim is made during the policy period if the insured has continuously been insured with claims made policies with the same insurer since the injury occurred.
Advantages to a “claims made” policy:
- Covers any lawsuit filed during the policy period, regardless of when the injury occurred
- Coverage limits are the current limits, not the limits in effect when the injury occurred
- Insurance premiums often are lower than for an occurrence policy
- Must have carried “claims made” insurance continuously with the same insurer from the date of the injury to the date of the claim, or have purchased “prior acts coverage,” which can be costly.
- A brief lapse in insurance coverage for any reason can result in no “claims made” coverage
- Coverage for prior claims is lost if a church switches from a “claims made” to an “occurrence” policy
- When a policy expires or is terminated, for any reason, coverage ceases (even for claims that are later made for injuries occurring during the policy period)
- Claims for injuries occurring in more than one year may be filed during the same year, meaning that the policy’s “aggregate” coverage limit is more quickly reached (the aggregate limit is the total amount the insurer will pay out during that year for all covered claims)
- Claims must not only be made during the policy period to be covered—they also must be reported to the insurer (a technicality that is sometimes overlooked)
“Prior acts” coverage, available for an additional cost and at the insurer’s discretion, covers claims made during the current policy period for injuries occurring in the past when the insured carried insurance with another insurer.
Example: A church purchases “claims made” counseling insurance from Company A each year for several years. It switches to an “occurrence policy” with Company B this year.
A lawsuit is brought against the church this year for an alleged act of counseling malpractice that occurred three years ago. The church’s policy with Company A will not cover this claim since the claim was not “made” during the policy period (even though it occurred during the policy period). Had the church not switched insurers this year, the claim would have been covered. Does the policy with Company B cover the claim? No, since the injury did not occur during the policy period.
As a result, there is no coverage for this claim. Note that the result would have been the same had the church purchased a claims made policy from Company B, unless it also purchased “prior acts” coverage.
This example illustrates an important point. Churches should not switch from a claims made to an occurrence policy (with the same or a different insurer), or switch claims made insurers, without legal counsel.
Church leaders should ensure that liability insurance policies are never discarded. Policies often are the only means of establishing the existence and availability of insurance for old claims—both now and in the future.
Church leaders should periodically review the policies and procedures the church has adopted to address the risk of child abuse and ensure both their adequacy and consistent application.
If a church cannot locate an insurance policy covering a case of child abuse occurring many years in the past, the services of an “insurance archaeologist” may be helpful. Insurance archaeologists are trained to locate missing insurance policies. Even if successful, conditions may apply. Further, the coverage limits under old policies often will be far below the damages sought, making the services of an archaeologist of limited value in many cases.