• Can a diocese and bishop be sued for damages resulting from the alleged sexual molestation of minors by a Catholic priest? That was the issue before a Washington state appeals court in a recent case. In 1984, a Catholic diocese in Louisiana suspended a priest from performing his “priestly duties” after he admitted to sexual misconduct with minors. The priest was asked to leave the diocese and he eventually was admitted (with the approval of the diocese) to the Jesuit House in Spokane, Washington. A representative of the Louisiana diocese noted that “because of the nature of the complaints, we did not want to take any chances of him just running free. We had no police control over him. We could not lock him up or anything like that. So, we had to leave him in a place where he could have some supervision and a place to stay.” Just prior to the priest’s discharge from the Jesuit House, the diocese informed him that his “options in the ministry were severely limited if not nil,” and that “because of the possibility of legal action and the responsibility on the part of any institution that might hire you, I think realistically that for Church employment you are a very poor risk.” The diocese further advised the priest that he would not be permitted to perform priestly duties upon his release, and that he was not to return to the diocese. Following his release from the Jesuit House, the priest accepted a job as a counselor of adolescents in an alcohol/drug rehabilitation center in a private hospital. He was terminated from this job because of complaints of sexual abuse by former patients. Eight adolescents and one adult sued the hospital, the priest, as well as his diocese and bishop. The plaintiffs alleged that the diocese had negligently supervised the priest, and that it should have warned the private hospital of his pedophilia. The appeals court agreed that “an employer may be held liable for acts beyond the scope of employment because of its prior knowledge of the dangerous tendencies of its employee.” The diocese argued that it could not be liable for the misconduct of the priest, since his actions did not arise out of his priestly duties and accordingly were not within the scope of his employment relationship with the diocese. In rejecting this claim, the court observed that “the duty of obedience which [the priest] owed the diocese encompassed all phases of his life and correspondingly the diocese’s authority over its cleric went beyond the customary employer/employee relationship …. Despite his employment with [the hospital], the employment relationship between [the priest] and the diocese continued.” The court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the diocese had been negligent in supervising the priest, and whether it should have warned the hospital of his pedophilia. If the courts of Washington ultimately determine that the diocese was negligent for not having warned the hospital of the priest’s pedophilia, then this would suggest that church denominations (and even local churches) may be at risk if they are aware that a minister is a pedophile but do nothing to warn a prospective employer (religious or otherwise) of the individual’s pedophilia. Further developments in this case will be reported in future issues of Church Law & Tax Report. Does 1-9 v. Compcare, Inc., 763 P.2d 1237 (Wash. App. 1988).
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