Child Abuse Reporting

A California court ruled that the “ecclesiastical privilege” prevented it from resolving a pastor’s lawsuit against his denomination.

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 California court ruled that the "ecclesiastical privilege" prevented it from resolving a pastor's lawsuit against his denomination in which he claimed that a denominational officer "barred" him from preaching in a church in order to prevent him from learning of and reporting an incident of child abuse allegedly perpetrated by the officer.

James was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church in 1951. This ordination enabled him to preach, conduct weddings and funerals, and provide all other sacraments recognized by the church. In 1994 he was acting as an associate pastor in a church when the senior pastor became incapacitated. Pastor James applied for the senior pastor position, but his application was "derailed" by his district superintendent. Instead, a new pastor was appointed. The church membership rejected the new pastor's appointment and Pastor James remained as the interim pastor for an additional year until his retirement. Shortly after Pastor James' retirement, the district superintendent issued a "barring order" preventing him from preaching or worshipping at the church. Pastor James did not learn of the barring order until 2002 when the church's senior pastor invited Pastor James to conduct worship services while he was out of town. The senior pastor was informed by denominational officials of the barring order, and he rescinded his invitation.

Pastor James later sued his annual conference as a result of the barring order and rescission of the invitation to preach. Pastor James' lawsuit claimed that after he was rejected as senior pastor at the church in 1994 the district superintendent appointed another pastor who was rejected by the congregation; and, that the superintendent thereafter sent a letter to a 16-year-old youth leader who was a member of the church's pastor-parish relations committee regarding her participation in the rejection of the new pastor. In the letter, the superintendent charged the youth leader with "knowingly becoming involved in a smear campaign" against the pastor, being involved in "unchristian behavior" by acting on gossip, and "undermining the ministry of a pastor," which was a "chargeable offense" that risked one's standing in the denomination as well as possible legal repercussions.

The youth leader was extremely upset as a result of this letter. Pastor James' lawsuit alleged that the letter constituted "emotional child abuse" and was viewed as such by church leaders. The superintendent knew that Pastor James was a psychologist and, therefore, a mandatory reporter of child abuse, and he feared that if he became senior pastor he would discover that the superintendent had been accused of the abuse of a minor church member and that as a mandatory reporter he would have been obliged to report the alleged abuse to the authorities. To prevent this, Pastor James alleged, the superintendent embarked upon a plot to prevent him from learning about the abuse, and this included the issuance of the secret barring order.

A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that when a dispute involves the employment or termination of employment of clergy, the "ecclesiastical privilege" applies barring the civil courts from intervening. The rule "is about as absolute as a rule of law can be—the first amendment guarantees to a religious institution the right to decide matters affecting its ministers' employment, free from the scrutiny and second-guessing of the civil courts." And, this is true "regardless of whether the termination, or other adverse action, was taken for theological reasons. The fact that the employee was a clergyperson is enough to trigger the privilege."

The court noted that Pastor James was claiming that the barring order was part of an attempt to prevent him from discovering and reporting an act of reportable child abuse. Reportable child abuse, under the applicable reporting law, includes "a situation where any person willfully causes or permits any child to suffer, or inflicts thereon, unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering." The court rejected Pastor James' argument that the superintendent's letter to the youth leader constituted a willful infliction of unjustifiable mental suffering. It observed, "[The superintendent] wrote a single letter to the official youth member of a church pastor-parish relations committee expressing his displeasure at the member's participation in the rejection of a pastor. While the letter may have caused the youth leader to experience some feelings of guilt, anxiety, or remorse, the letter does not constitute child abuse. A youth leader who participates in a church committee and is reprimanded by a member of the church hierarchy for decisions made by that committee regarding church leadership is not a victim of child abuse."

The court concluded that Pastor James' lawsuit was subject to the ecclesiastical privilege, and that he was attempting "to circumvent the bar of the ecclesiastical privilege by arguing [that the superintendent] barred him from the church in order to prevent him from discovering and reporting an act of child abuse. Even if he were barred to prevent his discovery of the letter to the youth leader, the letter was not an act of child abuse. Therefore, there is no compelling governmental interest at issue in this case sufficient to override application of the ecclesiastical privilege."

Application . Note that clergy were not mandatory reporters of child abuse in California in 1994 when the alleged abuse in this case occurred. But, Pastor James was a mandatory child abuse reporter because he was a psychologist. As a result, it was Pastor James' contention that the superintendent attempted to bar him from serving as pastor of the church in order to prevent him from learning of and reporting the "abuse" of the youth leader. The court rejected this argument as nothing other than an attempt to avoid the dismissal of his claims against the church on the basis of the ecclesiastical privilege. The court concluded that the child abuse reporting law could not be used in this manner. Johnson v. California-Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 2004 WL 2474437 (Cal. App. 2004).

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