Child Abuse

A Tennessee court ruled that a church was not liable for a former minister’s acts of child molestation.

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 Tennessee court ruled that a church was not liable for a former minister's acts of child molestation as a result of its failure to report the incidents to the authorities as soon as it learned of them.

Edward became a Catholic priest in 1970. In 1986, a parent reported to the bishop of the diocese that Edward had molested her son when he was a minor. Edward admitted to the molestation when confronted by the bishop, and he was sent to a treatment facility where he allegedly admitted to molesting over thirty boys during the previous fourteen years. This information was included in reports sent to the diocese. The bishop claimed that he reported the mother's allegations to an employee of the state Department of Human Services, but the employee testified that she did remember the conversation.

Upon his release from treatment in 1987 Edward retained or had reinstated his priestly functions, but the diocese limited his activities to those not involving children. Nonetheless, he did involve himself in activities where children were present. In 1989 the diocese learned that Edward had given an underage boy a condom as a Christmas present, and based on this incident it removed him from the priesthood. Edward was ordered to halt performing any and all priestly functions, move off diocesan property, and not work for the diocese in any capacity.

Following his termination from the diocese, Edward moved into a mobile home community and began working for the local juvenile court. He soon began to molest young boys again. In 1991, Edward met a young boy (Jon) at the mobile home community where they all lived. He befriended the family and started taking Jon to school and to football games. In time, Jon began spending the night at Edward's trailer, where Edward began molesting him. The molestation occurred on numerous occasions. Jon's mother discovered the abuse in 1995 and reported her concerns to the police. In 1995 Edward met another family in the trailer park, and he began molesting the family's minor son (Jeremy) on a weekly basis for the next three years. Edward was arrested, tried, and convicted of multiple counts of child molestation, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The parents of Jon and Jeremy sued the diocese, not for negligent hiring or supervision of Edward, but rather for "intentional infliction of emotional distress" based on its failure to report Edward to the authorities. Had the diocese reported the abuse, the parents claimed, Edward would have been prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned, and prevented from molesting their sons.

A trial court dismissed the lawsuit against the diocese, noting that "there is no cause of action for failure to report sex abuse when the alleged non-reported abuse takes place many years apart and involves different victims." The parents appealed.

A state appeals court agreed with the trial court's conclusion that the diocese could not be liable on the basis of intentional infliction of emotional distress for the victims' injuries. It defined intentional infliction of emotional distress as follows: "(1) One who by extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another is subject to liability for such emotional distress, and if bodily harm to the other results from it, for such bodily harm. (2) Where such conduct is directed at a third person, the actor is subject to liability if he intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress (a) to a member of such person's immediate family who is present at the time, whether or not such distress results in bodily harm, or (b) to any other person who is present at the time, if such distress results in bodily harm."

The court concluded that the parents did not meet the requirement that the conduct of the diocese must have been "directed at" a particular person. It observed, "Even if the diocese failed to report Edward when it should have, that conduct was not directed at the plaintiffs or at anyone with whom the plaintiffs had a close personal relationship …. The conduct of Edward in committing sexual assaults on the plaintiffs is so attenuated and remote from the actions of the diocese as to be non actionable."

. Some states have enacted statutes imposing civil liability on mandatory child abuse reporters who do not report known or reasonably suspected incidents of abuse. However, in states without such laws, victims of child abuse have had difficulty persuading courts to impose liability on mandatory reporters who fail to report. This case illustrates this difficulty. The court concluded that a religious organization cannot be liable, on the basis of its failure to report child abuse, for a former minister's acts of child molestation. Doe v. Roman Catholic Diocese, 2003 WL 22171558 (Tenn. App. 2003).

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