Child Abuse Reporting

A New Jersey court ruled that a woman could not sue her pastor and church for failing to report to civil authorities her sexual abuse that she had disclosed to them when she was a minor.

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.

A New Jersey court ruled that a woman could not sue her pastor and church for failing to report to civil authorities her sexual abuse that she had disclosed to them when she was a minor.

A 13-year-old girl ("Amy") was sexually abused by her father over a one-year period. She did not disclose the abuse to anyone at the time because she was afraid of him. She later testified that her father "absolutely petrified me, I was scared to death of him." She also claimed that her father "threatened my life to maintain my silence of his sexual abuse of me." When she was 16, Amy began to disclose the abuse to various people in her life. She disclosed the abuse to the principal of the church-operated school she attended, who was also an ordained minister. The principal told Amy that the abuse had happened too far in the past for anyone to do anything about it and "sometimes it's just best to leave things in the past." Amy understood this to mean she was to stop talking about the abuse. Several years later Amy met with an attorney to discuss her prior abuse, and the attorney urged her to meet with the local prosecutor, which she did. This led to the prosecution and conviction of her father for child molestation. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. It was not until her father had been convicted and sentenced to prison that Amy felt free of his threats. She again met with her attorney, and decided to sue her church and pastor for failing to report the abuse to civil authorities. Specifically, she alleged that her church and pastor refrained from reporting the abuse due to "fear of scandal to the church" and because the church protected child abusers who were respected members of the church family. A trial court dismissed all of Amy's claims against her church and pastor, and Amy appealed. An appeals court ruled that Amy's lawsuit had to be dismissed because it was filed after the deadline imposed by the statute of limitations. Amy argued that the statute of limitations should be "extended" because of what she called "religious duress." By this she meant that her church taught that it was wrong to criticize or take action against members of the clergy or the church, and that sexual abuse victims should remain silent, refrain from making any public accusations, and avoid any contact with civil authorities in search of justice. The court rejected Amy's "religious duress" theory and refused to extend the statute of limitations. It noted that "duress may take the form of moral compulsion or psychological pressure," yet "even moral compulsion or psychological pressure are not wrongful unless they are so oppressive under given circumstances as to constrain one to do what his free will would refuse." This test was not met.

Application. While Amy was not allowed to sue her pastor or church for failing to report her child abuse, this was because of her failure to file a lawsuit by the deadline specified by the statute of limitations. In other words, the court dismissed Amy's claims on technical grounds. It is possible that the court would have accepted Amy's claims had she filed her lawsuit on time. The potential civil liability of ministers for failing to report child abuse is an issue with which church leaders should be familiar. Smith v. Estate of Kelly, 778 A.2d 1162 (N.J. 2001).

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