Can a Denomination Be Held Responsible for a Pastor’s Sexual Misconduct?

The answer hinges on whether the pastor is considered an employee of the denomination.

Church Law & Tax Report

Can a Denomination Be Held Responsible for a Pastor’s Sexual Misconduct?

The answer hinges on whether the pastor is considered an employee of the denomination.

Key point 10-02.1. Employers may be liable on the basis of respondeat superior only for the acts of employees.

Key point 10-18.2. Most courts have refused to hold denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches, either because of First Amendment considerations or because the relationship between the denominational agency and affiliated church or minister is too remote to support liability.

A Texas court ruled that a national church was not responsible on the basis of respondeat superior or negligence for a pastor’s sexual misconduct; and, that use of the denominational name in the local church’s name did not impose on the national church any duty to investigate pastors who served its affiliated churches. A woman (the “plaintiff”) claimed that in 1990 several woman in her church complained to the denomination (the “national church”) with which the church was affiliated about their pastor’s sexually inappropriate behavior. The plaintiff claimed that no action was taken. Several years later, the plaintiff claimed that the pastor “engaged in a pattern of egregious physical and sexual abuse against” her when she sought “spiritual counseling” from him. These acts occurred both at the church and in the parsonage “under the guise of pastoral counseling.” The plaintiff claimed that she wrote a letter to the national church “specifically outlining this pattern of abuse” and that the national church appointed two representatives to investigate but took no action.

The plaintiff sued the national church on the basis of the “respondeat superior” doctrine, as well as negligence. The trial court dismissed the claims against the national church, and the plaintiff appealed.

respondeat superior

The legal principle of respondeat superior (the “superior responds”) makes employers liable for the negligent acts of their employees committed in the course of their employment. The plaintiff claimed that the national church was responsible for the pastor’s conduct on this basis since he was an employee and his acts were in the course of his employment. She cited the following facts supporting her claim that the pastor was an employee of the national church:

  • the official manual of the national church empowers it to select pastors for affiliated churches;
  • the manual states that bishops appointed by the national church have “general supervision over all departments and churches in their jurisdiction”;
  • the national church may suspend or remove a pastor for any of the following grounds: (1) failure to abide by the national church’s rules and regulations; (2) committing misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance in office; (3) convicted of a felony or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; (4) espousing doctrines repugnant to the national church’s articles of faith; (5) misappropriation or misuse of funds; or (6) conduct unbecoming to a minister.
  • the national church allowed the pastor to administer pastoral counseling to members of the church;
  • the pastor attended seminars and conferences sponsored by the national church;
  • the pastor used the national church’s reputation and property in the commission of his acts.

The court concluded that an employer must have the right to control not only what workers do, but how they perform their tasks, in order for them to be deemed employees. The court concluded that the national church “did not have such a right of control over the details of [the pastor’s] work that it could be liable as an employer for purposes of respondeat superior.”


The plaintiff asserted that the national church had been informed in 1990 of accusations of sexual misconduct by the pastor, and that these accusations imposed on it a duty to adequately supervise him and protect other women from harm, including informing the congregation of the accusations. Its failure to do so amounted to negligence.

The court concluded that the national church’s knowledge of the accusations of sexual misconduct in 1990 did not make it responsible for the pastor molestation of the plaintiff many years later. It noted that even if the national church had informed the congregation in 1990 of the accusations, this would not have avoided the pastor’s molestation of the plaintiff. It noted that several members of the congregation were aware of the accusations in 1990, and took steps to remove the pastor from office. Further, the 1990 incidents were far less offensive than the acts perpetrated against the plaintiff, and therefore knowledge of the 1990 incidents did not suggest that the pastor would one day commit far more serious infractions.

negligent hiring, supervision, retention, and training

The plaintiff claimed that the national church was responsible for the pastor’s acts on the basis of its negligence in hiring, supervising, retaining, and training him. In rejecting this basis of liability, the court observed:

Negligence in hiring or retention requires that an employer’s failure to investigate, screen, or supervise its employees proximately caused the injuries the plaintiff alleges. An employer is not negligent when there is nothing in the employee’s background that would cause a reasonable employer not to hire or retain the employee. To establish a claim for negligent training, a plaintiff must prove that a reasonably prudent employer would have provided training beyond that which was given and that failure to do so caused his injuries. To establish a claim for negligent supervision, a plaintiff must show that an employer’s failure to supervise its employees caused his injuries. Thus, to be liable for negligent hiring, supervision, retention, or training, a defendant must have been involved in hiring the actor or retaining that actor in its employ.

Because there is no evidence that the national church participated in the hiring or retention of the pastor … or that it retained the requisite control over his day-to-day activities as pastor, summary judgment was proper as to the plaintiff’s negligent hiring, supervision, retention, and training claims …. There is no evidence indicating that … additional training would have prevented the plaintiff’s injuries.

Finally, to the extent the plaintiff argues that the national church should have investigated the pastor’s background before allowing the church to use [the national church’s name] in its name … there is no evidence that the fellowshipping or affiliation with the national church is what drew the plaintiff to attend the church.

What This Means for Churches:

This case is important for the following reasons. First, it illustrates that regional and national churches ordinarily will not be liable for the acts of ministers on the basis of respondeat superior, since an employment relationship does not exist. While there often are some examples of interrelationship between denominational agencies and clergy, these interrelationships generally do not create sufficient control over how clergy perform their tasks to create an employment relationship.

Second, the court concluded that knowledge of inappropriate behavior many years ago will not necessarily impose a duty on a church to take measures to prevent far more serious offenses today.

Third, the court concluded that a denominational agency that does not “hire” clergy or exercise control over their “day-to-day activities” is not responsible on the basis of negligent hiring, supervision, retention, or training for their wrongful acts.

Fourth, the court concluded that the use of a denomination’s name in a local church’s name does not, in itself, impose a duty on the denomination to investigate pastors’ backgrounds before allowing them to be employed in a pastoral capacity in an affiliated church. 2011 WL 1833095 (Tex. App. 2011).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law and Tax Report, May/June 2012.

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