Key point 4-08. Every state has a child abuse reporting law that requires persons designated as mandatory reporters to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse. Ministers are mandatory reporters in many states. Some states exempt ministers from reporting child abuse if they learned of the abuse in the course of a conversation protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Ministers may face criminal and civil liability for failing to report child abuse.
Failure to Report Child Abuse
A Minnesota court ruled that a failure by church leaders to report known cases of child abuse as required by state child abuse reporting law did not expose the church to liability.
Two adult females (the plaintiffs) claimed that they had been sexually molested over several years when they were minors by the same adult male (Don). They also claimed that their parents were aware of the molestation, and reported it to the elders of their Jehovah's Witness church. The plaintiffs alleged that Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine requires members "to associate only with other members of the Jehovah's Witnesses organization and avoid association with other people who are not Jehovah's Witnesses." They also alleged that members are expected to bring all allegations of wrongdoing to church elders. If a member makes an allegation of wrongdoing to anyone other than an elder, including law enforcement, that person can be accused of gossip or slander, which are punishable offenses within the church. According to Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine, wrongdoing cannot be proven without two eyewitnesses to the wrongful act, nondisputable evidence, or confession by the wrongdoer. According to the presiding overseer of the plaintiffs' church, upon hearing allegations of child abuse the elders are supposed to contact legal counsel at the Jehovah's Witnesses national headquarters and make a report to civil authorities if directed to do so by counsel.
When the plaintiffs' parents informed church elders of the molestation of their daughters, the elders investigated the allegation, did not immediately report the information to law enforcement, informed the national headquarters, and allowed Don to continue as a member of the church. The elders instructed the parents not to report the abuse to anyone and threatened to "disfellowship" (excommunicate) them if they did so.
The plaintiffs later sued their church and national headquarters, claiming that the "church defendants" were responsible for Don's acts because they failed to report his conduct to civil authorities as required by the state child abuse reporting law. A trial court dismissed the plaintiffs' lawsuit, and they appealed.
A state appeals court ruled that the state nonprofit corporation law, which requires ministers and other "mandatory reporters" to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse, "does not create a private cause of action for violation of its reporting requirements or create a duty which could be enforced through a common-law negligence action." Therefore. the plaintiffs' claims had to be rejected.
The court also rejected the plaintiffs' claim that the church defendants had a legal duty to protect them against a known child molester. It observed, "The fact that an actor realizes or should realize that action on his part is necessary for another's aid or protection does not of itself impose upon him a duty to take such action unless a special relationship exists between the actor and the other which gives the other the right to protection." The plaintiffs claimed that a special relationship existed between them and church elders as a result of Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine which requires members to rely on congregation elders for all of their concerns, and that allows members to associate only with other Jehovah's Witnesses who are in good standing with the church. The plaintiffs insisted that this amounted to significant control which deprived them of normal opportunities for self-protection. The court disagreed noting that special relationships typically involve custody exercised by one person over another, and in this case the church had not exercised custody over the plaintiffs at the time the molestation occurred. Rather, the molestation occurred at Don's residence, on a snowmobile, and in an automobile.
The court concluded that "providing faith-based advice or instruction, without more, does not create a special relationship …. Mere knowledge coupled with power is insufficient to impose a duty." Further, the church's doctrine that requires members to bring complaints exclusively to the attention of elders did not constitute an affirmative duty to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and protect congregants from future wrongful acts. The church "did not assume a duty to the plaintiffs but rather acted within their constitutional right to religious freedom, which includes the authority to independently decide matters of faith and doctrine." Meyer v. Lindala, 675 N.W.2d 635 (Minn. App. 2004).