Sexual Misconduct by Clergy, Lay Employees, and Volunteers
Key point 10-09.1. Some courts have found churches liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation on the ground that the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the victim or of its own programs and activities.
A Washington court ruled that a church could be liable for the molestation of a minor by a volunteer in the church’s scouting program, even without knowledge of prior incidents of misconduct by the volunteer. In the early spring of 1977, a stranger (the “defendant”) began attending a church. He was personable, but gave only a vague explanation of “what he did and who he was and where he came from.” The defendant offered to volunteer with the church’s Boy Scout troop, and the church leadership decided to accept him as a volunteer. The defendant quickly assumed substantial responsibilities for the troop’s activities, though he was never officially registered with the Boy Scouts of America. He conducted scout meetings every week, took the scouts on camping trips, and helped them earn their merit badges.
An adult male (the “victim”) claimed that the defendant began sexually molesting him in 1977, about a week after they met. The incidents occurred in various places, including the defendant’s home during sleepovers, in his car in the church parking lot, or during campouts. The defendant also molested at least two other scouts during scouting events and sleepovers. One of these other victims informed his mother, who reported the abuse to church leaders the same day. She was told not to call the police and that church leaders would “take care of it.” The church leaders tried to contact the defendant, who left town the same night. The church conducted a parents meeting. Parents were instructed to discuss the defendant with their sons. Questioned by his parents, the plaintiff denied that the defendant had molested him. He did not tell friends or siblings about it either.
In 2011, the plaintiff sued the church, regional and national agencies of the church, and the BSA. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants had a duty to protect him from the criminal acts of the defendant. He claimed that they failed in their duty in various ways: by failing to check into the defendant’s background, by allowing him to supervise the children in isolated settings without another adult present, and by failing to train scoutmasters or warn scouts and their families about the danger of sexual abuse in scouting.
The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the defendants owed no duty to protect minors from a danger of which they were unaware. The victim appealed.
A state appeals court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the case and ordered the case to proceed to trial.
The court’s ruling
On appeal, the defendants claimed that none of them owed a duty of protection to the plaintiff because they did not possess prior specific knowledge that the defendant posed a threat to boys. But the court ruled that such knowledge is not necessary to establish a duty of care. Instead, a duty of care can arise solely on the basis of a “protective relationship” such as that between a church or scouting program and minors in their custody. In such cases, all that is required is “knowledge of the general field of danger within which the harm occurred.” The court continued:
As a matter of public policy, the protection of children is a high priority. In general, therefore, we find churches (and other religious organizations) subject to the same duties of reasonable care as would be imposed on any person or entity in selecting and supervising their workers, or protecting vulnerable persons within their custody, so as to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm.
However, the court noted that a duty of care arising from a protective relationship “is limited by the concept of foreseeability.” That is, “the duty is to anticipate dangers which may reasonably be anticipated, and to then take precautions to protect children in its custody from such dangers … . A defendant’s actual knowledge of the particular danger is not required if the general nature of the harm is foreseeable under the circumstances. Therefore, even if there was no evidence that the church knew about specific past incidents of child sexual abuse in scouting, we would decline to decide as a matter of law that sexual abuse by adult scout volunteers was unforeseeable by the church.” The court noted that the plaintiff produced evidence that the danger of sexual abuse by an adult volunteer was one the church reasonably should have anticipated.
The court concluded: “We reverse as to the church and remand for trial. The church had a protective relationship with the victim. From this relationship, a duty arose to take reasonable precautions to protect children in the church’s care from foreseeable hazards, a category that may include the risk of child sex abuse by scout leaders. This duty does not depend on the church having prior knowledge that its volunteer scout leader was a molester.”
What This Means For Churches:
This case is important because it illustrates that a church may be liable for a volunteer worker’s acts of child molestation, even if it conducted a reasonable background check and had no knowledge of any prior acts of sexual misconduct by the volunteer. This is because foreseeability of harm is not necessary to impose a legal duty of care upon a church that has entered into a “protective relationship” with a minor. The protective relationship itself is all that is required for a church to have a duty of protection toward minors in its custody. The court did clarify that a church’s liability for acts of child molestation involving minors in its protective custody only extended to foreseeable harm, but it concluded that, in this context, all that was required was foreseeability of the “general nature of the harm,” such as the sexual abuse of minors by adult volunteers. N.K. v. Corporation of Presiding Bishop, 307 P.3d 730 (Wash. App. 2013).