Child Abuse

A California court ruled that a 6-year-old child could not be sued by an adult male against whom she made false accusations of child abuse.

Key point 4-02.03. A number of defenses are available to one accused of defamation. These include truth, statements made in the course of judicial proceedings, consent, and self-defense. In addition, statements made to church members about a matter of common interest to members are protected by a "qualified privilege," meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless they are made with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the statements knew that they were false or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. This privilege will not apply if the statements are made to nonmembers.

A California court ruled that a 6-year-old child could not be sued by an adult male against whom she made false accusations of child abuse. It is every youth worker's worst fear—being falsely accused of molesting a child. What recourse does a person have in such a case? Can a child be sued who makes a knowingly false accusation of child abuse? That was the issue in a recent California case. A 6-year-old child made a false accusation of child abuse against an adult acquaintance. The child accused the adult of performing various sexually deviant acts upon her person. She made her initial accusations to her grandmother, and then to her parents. After her parents reported the accusations to the police, the child was interviewed by police officers. She repeated the accusations to the police. The child knew that the accusations she was making were false.

As a result of the false accusations, the alleged offender was arrested, booked and jailed. It was later determined that the child had fabricated her allegations, and the alleged offender was released and all charges were dropped. He sued the child for defamation. He conceded that the state child abuse reporting law gave mandatory and permissive child abuse reporters "limited" immunity from liability, but only if their reports were not "malicious" (knowingly false). Since the child in this case was a permissive reporter, and she knew her allegations of abuse were false, she was not protected from personal liability. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and a state appeals court upheld this disposition. The court concluded that children who are victims of abuse are neither mandatory nor permissive child abuse reporters, and so they have much broader protection from liability than what is provided under the child abuse reporting law.

The court concluded that the statements the child made to the police were "absolutely privileged," meaning they could not be the basis for liability even if she knew they were false. This is because of a state law that provides absolute immunity to any statement made in "an official proceeding authorized by law." The court noted that other courts in California had reached different conclusions as to whether allegations of child abuse made to the police are statements made in "an official proceeding authorized by law." It concluded, however, that they fit within this rule of immunity, and therefore the child could not be liable. It also concluded that the statements she made to her grandmother were also privileged, since they were directly related to the allegations that were later made to the police.

The court acknowledged that its decision prevented a wrongfully accused adult "from any relief or compensation for the grievous injury which we must assume resulted from intentionally false and malicious acts on the part of [the child]. We do so because we are obligated to honor the determination of the legislature that protection of one innocent segment of society warrants occasional injury to another."

Application. As this case illustrates, persons who are falsely accused of child molestation by a minor may have no legal recourse. This is a compelling reason why church leaders should implement appropriate policies and procedures to reduce the likelihood of innocent volunteer workers being falsely accused of child abuse. For a summary of preventive policies and procedures, see chapter 10 in Richard Hammar's book, Pastor, Church & Law (3rd ed. 2000). Smith v. M.D., 105 Cal.App.4th 1169 (Cal. App. 2003).

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