Abuse Victim Sues Church for Negligence

Adult victims may be able to sue for abuse suffered as a child

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point. A church may be legally responsible for injuries caused by incidents of child molestation if it was negligent in selecting, supervising, or retaining the perpetrator.

Key point. In some states members of an unincorporated church cannot sue their church as a result of injuries they sustain.

An Indiana court ruled that the first amendment does not prevent a woman from suing her church and a denominational agency on account of injuries she suffered as a result of being molested by her pastor when she was a minor. The woman claimed that the pastor began molesting her when she was 7 years old, and that the molestation continued until she was 20. The woman sued her church and the regional and national denominational agencies with which her church was affiliated. A state appeals court concluded that the woman could pursue some of her claims against the church and regional agency, but not against the national church. The court made a number of important observations that are summarized below.

first amendment

The church, along with the regional and national denominational agencies, insisted that the woman’s claim was barred by the first amendment nonestablishment of religion clause which prohibits “excessive entanglement” between church and state. The court acknowledged that some courts have reached such a conclusion, but it declined to do so noting that a review of the woman’s claims “does not require any inquiry into religious doctrine or practice.” It continued:

[The pastor’s] actions were not religiously motivated. Instead, review only requires the court to determine if the church knew of [his] inappropriate conduct, yet failed to protect third parties from him. The court is simply applying secular standards to secular conduct which is permissible under first amendment standards. The first amendment does not provide an absolute freedom to act with regard to religious beliefs. Instead, that freedom can be regulated for the protection of society. The protection of society requires that religious organizations be held accountable for injuries they cause to third persons.

statute of limitations

The statute of limitations specifies the deadline for filing a lawsuit. In Indiana the statute of limitations for personal injuries is 2 years. However, Indiana (like many states) has adopted the so-called “discovery rule.” Under this rule, the 2-year limitations period does not begin to run until a person “knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence, could have discovered that an injury had been sustained” as a result of the wrongful conduct of another. The court stressed that the woman in this case “knew the sexual molestation was occurring and that it was wrong when she was 15 or 16 years old.” Further, she had been receiving counseling for the behavioral problems associated with the pastor’s actions. As a result, she was well aware of the nature and cause of her injuries when she was a minor. Since the statute of limitations does not begin to run for injuries occurring to a minor until the minor’s 18th birthday, the woman had 2 years to bring her lawsuit after she attained age 18. Since she failed to file her lawsuit by this deadline, any recovery of damages for injuries occurring while she was a minor were barred. She could sue only for damages associated with the relatively infrequent acts of molestation occurring within two years of the date she filed her lawsuit.

member of an unincorporated association

The church argued that the woman’s lawsuit had to be dismissed as a result of the general rule that members of an unincorporated association cannot sue the association. The court acknowledged that the church was unincorporated, and then summarized the rule as follows:

The theory of the general rule is that the members of an unincorporated association are engaged in joint enterprise. The negligence of each member in the prosecution of that enterprise is imputable to each and every other member so that the member who has suffered damages through the tortious conduct of another member of the association may not recover from the association for such damage. It would be akin to the person suing himself as each member becomes both a principal and an agent as to all other members for the actions of the group itself.

The court concluded that the woman had been a member of the church for most of her life. It acknowledged that she had recently begun attending a different church, and therefore she could sue for those acts of molestation (if any) occurring after she ceased to be a member of the former church.

negligent selection

The court concluded that neither the church, nor the regional or national denominational agency, could be sued on the basis of negligent selection of the pastor. The court observed that the pastor was hired by the church in 1954, and that there was no evidence whatever that the church or either denominational agency was aware of any misconduct on his part at that time.

negligent supervision and retention claim against the national agency

The court concluded that the national church was not liable on the basis of negligent supervision or retention for the actions of the pastor. It observed:

The [national church], which is only affiliated with the local church and [regional agency] through its constitution and judicial procedures, was not informed. The evidence … does not indicate that [the woman] invoked the judicial procedures, which is the only mechanism by which the [national church] could have taken action against [the pastor]. According to the judicial procedures, the [regional agency] forms a committee to investigate alleged misconduct upon the submission of a complaint signed by two or more persons. Only after this investigation is completed and the [regional agency] determines that the evidence warrants a trial does the [national church] become involved. [The woman] has not alleged … that she or anyone else ever filed a complaint against [the pastor] with the [regional agency]. Therefore, the [national church] could not have disciplined [the pastor]. Accordingly, we conclude that because the evidence does not show that the [national church] was aware of [the pastor’s] actions, summary judgment in favor of the [national church] is proper on [the woman’s] claims for negligent hiring, supervision, and retention.

negligent supervision and retention claim against the church and regional agency

The court concluded that there was evidence that the local church and regional agency were aware of the pastor’s actions, and therefore they could be sued for negligent supervision and retention. The court sent the case back to the trial court for trial.

Application. There are a number of aspects to this decision that are noteworthy. Consider the following: (1) The case demonstrates the difficulty that adults often experience in filing a lawsuit as a result of injuries received while a minor. Even in those states where the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the victim “discovers” the cause of his or her injuries, the courts have been reluctant to accept such claims-particularly when the injuries occurred when the person was an adolescent. (2) The case illustrates the rule recognized in many states that members of an unincorporated church cannot sue their church for injuries they sustain on church property or in the course of church activities. However, this rule does not affect nonmembers. (3) There can be no liability for incidents of sexual misconduct based on “negligent selection” if a church had no knowledge at the time it hired the perpetrator that he or she posed a risk to others. (4) A church can be sued on the basis of negligent supervision or retention if it retains a worker who is known to have engaged in acts of sexual misconduct. (5) Finally, the court ruled that the national church was not liable for the pastor’s acts of molestation, even if it had some knowledge of them, if the disciplinary procedure outlined in its bylaws was not activated. This is a significant point. Many denominational agencies have procedures for disciplining ministers. These procedures may be invoked only in specified ways. If the procedures are not properly invoked, the denominational agency may not be liable for failing to bypass its own procedures and engage in a unilateral act of discipline. Konkle v. Henson, 672 N.E.2d 450 (Ind. App. 1996). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Unincorp orated Associations, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denomina tional Liability]

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