Church Responsibility for Sexual Misconduct

Churches can be liable for affairs if negligence is proved.

Church Law and Tax 1996-09-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point: A church may be legally responsible for a pastor’s sexual contact with an adult counselee if it was negligent in hiring or supervising the pastor.

Key point. Church leaders who ignore accusations of sexual misconduct by a church employee are subjecting their church to possible civil liability on the basis of negligence. They may also be subjecting their church to punitive damages, and themselves to personal liability, if their actions constitute gross negligence.

An Illinois court ruled that a pastor, deacon, and church could be sued by a woman who was sexually seduced by the pastor during marriage counseling. The woman and her husband claimed that during the course of marital counseling the pastor initiated and continued a sexual relationship with the woman, thereby aggravating the problems in her marriage, alienating them from their church and church community, and causing them emotional and psychological damage. The couple sued the pastor on the following grounds: intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent infliction of emotional distress; breach of fiduciary duty; alienation of affections; assault and battery; and marriage counselor malpractice. The couple also sued the deacon for slander and negligent supervision of the pastor. The couple sued the church for negligence. Specifically, they claimed that the church was negligent in failing to supervise the pastor despite the fact that it knew or should have known that his previous attractions to female congregation members created an unreasonable risk that his religious and marital counseling would be ineffective and potentially detrimental to those being counseled; failing to adequately train and apprise the pastor of the proper methods and techniques of marital counseling; failing to dismiss the pastor as the couple’s marriage counselor notwithstanding the fact that it knew or should have known of his emotional and physical attraction to the wife, as well as previous such attractions to other female members of the congregation; failing to warn members of the congregation of the pastor’s previous attachments, creating an unreasonable risk of marital discord among members of the congregation; and failing to dismiss or reassign the pastor as minister and counselor despite the fact that it knew or should have known that his attractions to female congregation members created an unreasonable risk that his religious and marital counseling would be ineffective and potentially detrimental to those being counseled. The couple insisted that the church had a duty to all members of the congregation to use reasonable care in training, assigning, controlling, and supervising its pastor with respect to providing religious services and counseling services. The couple claimed that the pastor’s actions had damaged them in a number of ways, including the wife’s contraction of two venereal diseases, medical bills incurred in treating these venereal diseases, psychological damages, counseling expenses, and irreparable deterioration in their marriage. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The couple appealed.

A state appeals court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the case and sent the case back to the trial court for further consideration. The court acknowledged that “[a] court’s authority to resolve disputes involving a church is narrowly circumscribed by the first amendment’s guarantee that the right to the free exercise of religion will not be abridged.” It added that “Illinois courts have generally refused to decide cases that require a judicial interpretation of religious doctrine or church law.” However, “where doctrinal controversy is not involved in a church dispute, mandatory deference to religious authority is not required by the first amendment, and the court may choose from a variety of approaches in resolving the dispute.” It noted that the courts can resolve disputes over control of church property so long as they can do so on the basis of “neutral principles of law” requiring no examination of religious doctrine. The court applied the same “neutral principles of law” approach in this case involving alleged church liability for the sexual misconduct of its pastor. It observed:

Although the neutral principles of law approach is usually applied to disputes over church property, we cannot conclude from plaintiffs’ complaint that the instant cause cannot be decided using neutral principles of negligence law, developed for use in all negligence disputes, without interpretation of religious doctrine or church law, just as would be a secular dispute in a negligence case. Resolution of the instant dispute may not involve any searching inquiry into religious matters in violation of the first amendment. The first amendment prohibits civil courts from resolving church disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and practice. We cannot conclude from plaintiffs’ complaint that the instant case cannot be decided on the basis of neutral principles of law and without reference to religious doctrine and practice.

We cannot conclude from plaintiffs’ complaint that their cause of action against [the church] will infringe upon, or place a burden upon, the church’s freedom to exercise its religion. Inquiring into whether the church was negligent in its failure to protect plaintiffs from the sexual misconduct of its minister may not call into question the church’s religious beliefs or practices or subject them to analysis or scrutiny. As we have pointed out, the minister’s sexual misconduct was not rooted in the church’s religious beliefs and was outside the boundaries of the church’s ecclesiastical beliefs and practices. Thus, resolving this dispute may not require any interpretation of church doctrine or any regulation of ecclesiastical activity. We cannot conclude from plaintiffs’ complaint that resolution of this dispute will require the court to inquire into, or attempt to adjudicate, determine, or interpret the church’s religious policies, practices, doctrines, or tenets.

The court stressed that the church had not claimed that the sexual misconduct of its pastor was part of its religious beliefs or practices or was in any way sanctioned or condoned by the church, and that “[t]he minister’s alleged sexual misconduct was not rooted in his religious beliefs or those of his church.” In summary, the court concluded that the trial court improperly dismissed the case since it had the authority to resolve it if it could do so on the basis of neutral principles of negligence law requiring no examination of church doctrine.

This case illustrates the potential liability that churches face for the sexual misconduct of clergy or other counselors. Liability in such cases will be based on negligence either in the selection of the minister or counselor, or in training, retaining, or supervising the individual. Negligence is far easier to prove when victims of sexual misconduct can prove that the church was (or should have been) aware of inappropriate sexual behavior by the minister or counselor. In this case, if the couple can prove their claim that church leaders were aware of inappropriate sexual behavior by the pastor involving other female members of the congregation, then it will be difficult for the church to avoid liability based on negligence. Church leaders must understand that they are assuming an enormous risk when they have knowledge of prior sexual misconduct by a pastor or counselor, and take no steps to prevent similar acts from occurring. Further, this case illustrates the potential liability of church board members for the sexual misconduct of a pastor or counselor. The couple sued one of the church’s deacons, claiming that he was also legally responsible for their injuries on the basis of negligence. While uncompensated board members generally cannot be liable for their ordinary negligence under state law, they can be sued for their gross negligence. It is possible that the trial court in this case will conclude that the deacon had sufficient knowledge of the pastor’s misdeeds that allowing him to continue his pastoral and counseling responsibilities amounted to gross negligence. Bivin v. Wright, 656 N.E.2d 1121 (Ill. App. 1995). [ Clergy Malpractice, Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability]

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