Church Responsibility for Clergy Abuse

If negligence is not proven, churches generally aren’t liable in sexual abuse cases.

Church Law and Tax 1996-01-01

Sexual misconduct by clergy and church workers

Key point. A church ordinarily will not be legally responsible for the sexual molestation of a child on church property or during a church activity unless it was negligent in hiring or supervising the molester.

Key point. Religious organizations may not be liable for the sexual misconduct of an employee if they exercise reasonable care in selecting and supervising that employee.

Key point. A religious denomination is not necessarily legally responsible for the acts of sexual misconduct that occur in affiliated churches.

A Minnesota appeals court ruled that a church and denominational organization were not legally responsible on the basis of negligent hiring for a pastor’s acts of child molestation. The molester served as pastor of a church between 1964 and 1989. He was accused of sexually abusing numerous young boys during this tenure. He admitted abusing some of the children, including a 10—year—old boy (the “”victim””) in 1973. In May 1991 the victim sued the pastor, his former church, and the national and regional church bodies of which the church was a member. The victim settled out of court with the national and regional bodies, and the case proceeded to trial against the pastor and local church. The jury found that the pastor had sexually abused the victim and that the church negligently permitted the abuse. The jury also apportioned negligence between the church and the regional church body. A state appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision that the church had been negligent. The court addressed the following issues:

statute of limitations

The court noted that Minnesota has a special statute of limitations applicable to personal injury actions based on sexual abuse. Under this statute, a victim has six years to file a lawsuit from “”the time the plaintiff knew or had reason to know that the injury was caused by the sexual abuse.”” The jury found that the victim did not have reason to know his injuries were the result of sexual abuse until 1989—2 years before he filed the lawsuit. The church claimed that the evidence at trial conclusively established that the victim knew or should have known more than 6 years before he brought the lawsuit that his injuries were caused by sexual abuse. The appeals court concluded: “”[The victim] was abused when he was 10 years old. Although he admitted … that he knew at the time of the abuse that [the pastor’s] actions were wrong and he was ashamed and embarrassed, he also testified that his memories resurfaced only after more than 20 years had passed and he saw a news report about [the pastor] in 1989 …. [T]here was expert testimony that [the victim] did not appreciate the connection between these problems and the abuse until 1989.””

negligent hiring

The court defined “”negligent hiring”” as “the negligence of an employer in placing a person with known propensities, or propensities which should have been discovered by reasonable investigation, in an employment position in which, because of the circumstances of employment, it should have been foreseeable that the hired individual posed a threat of injury to others.” In ruling that the trial court erred in finding the church responsible for the victim’s injuries on the basis of negligent hiring, the court observed:

There is no evidence [the church] had actual knowledge of [the pastor’s] propensities to commit sexual abuse before he was hired. Moreover, it would have been contrary to the evidence for the jury to have concluded that [the church] should have learned of [his] propensities through reasonable investigation.

The regional church body had direct knowledge that [the pastor] had sexually abused a child two years before he was hired by [the church]. But it is undisputed that the regional church did not tell [the church] about this incident and took no action against [the pastor] that might have been discovered by [the church]. The record does not permit an inference that [the church] could have learned about [the pastor’s] propensities from the regional church, which was unwilling to disclose this information voluntarily ….

[T]he trial court suggested that if [the church] had simply called [the pastor’s] previous employer it might have learned that [he] had been accused of sexual abuse at that church. If this search is reasonably seen as a part of the hiring process in this church organization in 1964, a proposition we do not review, we find no evidence in the record to show that [the pastor’s] previous employer was aware of any accusations of sexual abuse against him. [The victim] has not presented any evidence of another source that [the church] might reasonably have investigated to discover [the pastor’s] dangerous propensities, so the jury could not have determined that [it] negligently hired [him].

negligent retention

The court defined “”negligent retention”” as occurring when, during the course of employment, the employer becomes aware or should have become aware of problems with an employee that indicated his unfitness, and the employer fails to take further action such as investigating, discharge, or reassignment.” The victim pointed to the following facts in supporting his claim that the church had been guilty of negligent retention: (1) some church members knew the pastor had an interest in children and youth ministry; (2) some church members knew the pastor was counselling children in private, including discussions of sexual and relationship issues; (3) some church members knew that, as part of his confirmation curriculum, the pastor discussed sexuality with children during the final interview; (4) some church members knew the pastor taught the boys about circumcision in confirmation classes, though a parent was always present during these lectures; (5) other incidents of sexual abuse occurred at the church at a time when other people would normally be around and the pastor took no special precautions to hide the abuse.

The court concluded that the church was not guilty of negligent retention, since “”[t]here is no evidence [it] had actual knowledge of [the pastor’s] propensities to commit sexual abuse prior to the time [the victim] was abused.”” It observed:

There is no evidence that members in 1973 should have foreseen abuse because their clergyperson was interested in youth ministry or counselled children in private. We are mindful that most personal counselling occurs in private. And by itself, evidence of a youth ministry interest and counselling activity does not show that the congregation should suspect the pastor is engaging in sexual abuse.

Nor is it reasonable to infer, at least without other evidence, knowledge in 1973 that a pastor will engage in sexual abuse merely because he or she counsels children on sexual issues. There is no evidence that counselling on sexual issues was outside a pastor’s purview or so unusual that it should have raised suspicions of sexual abuse. We agree that the details of some of [the pastor’s] discussions on sexuality were highly unusual and perhaps would have alerted [the church] to a problem. But there is no evidence that anyone reported the contents of these discussions to [the church’s] decisionmakers nor has [the victim] explained how these [church] members could otherwise have learned the details of these conversations.

Although discussions regarding circumcision may be unusual for a pastor, this evidence alone, taking into account that a parent was always present during these classes, could not reasonably put [the church] on notice that [the pastor] would commit sexual abuse. Finally, the jury could not conclude that [the church] should have known about other incidents of abuse simply because they occurred at the church when other people were probably in the building. The incidents all occurred in private, and there is no evidence that people who may have been in the building knew anything more than the fact that counselling sessions occurred ….

If this evidence alone is sufficient to support a negligent retention verdict, it would appear impossible for a church to avoid liability without prohibiting pastors from counselling children in private or prohibiting discussion of sexual issues. We are not prepared to hold that every church must take these measures to avoid liability for negligent retention, much less that this standard can govern church practices retroactive to a time more than two decades past.

negligent supervision

The court defined “”negligent supervision”” as “”the failure of the employer to exercise ordinary care in supervising the employment relationship, so as to prevent the foreseeable misconduct of an employee from causing harm to other employees or third persons.”” The court added that negligent supervision “”derives from the doctrine of respondeat superior”” so the victim “”must prove that the employee’s actions occurred within the scope of employment in order to succeed on this claim.””

It is very important to note that the court stressed the difficulty inherent in supervising clergy:

Even assuming that [the pastor’s] abuse of [the victim] occurred within his scope of employment, there was insufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that [the church] failed to exercise ordinary care in supervising [him]. By the nature of the position, a clergyperson has considerable freedom in religious and administrative leadership in a church. The clergy also require privacy and confidentiality in order to protect the privacy of parishioners. There was no evidence that the supervision provided by [the church] differed from the supervision a reasonable church would provide. Nor was there any evidence of further reasonable supervision that could have prevented [the pastor] from abusing [the victim]. There was not enough evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that [the church] negligently supervised [the pastor]. M.L. v. Magnuson, 531 N.W.2d 831 (Minn. App. 1995). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

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