Church School Could be Liable for Failure to Comply with State Child Abuse Reporting Law

A church can be liable on the basis of negligence for an employee’s acts of child molestation if it was aware of prior acts of molestation but failed to report them to the agency designated by state law.

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 federal appeals court ruled that a church school could be liable on the basis of negligence for a coach’s sexual relationship with a minor student as a result of its failure to comply with a state child abuse reporting law if it had reasonable cause to suspect that child sexual abuse was occurring.

An adult male (the “coach”) was employed as the girls’ basketball coach at a Christian secondary school from 2008 until 2010. While he was the school’s basketball coach, he sent over 3,200 text messages over a three-month period to a 17-year-old student (the “victim”) who was a member of the girls’ basketball team. The victim informed the school principal later in 2009 that she had received inappropriate texts from the coach. By that point, she had deleted all of the text messages from her phone, but she provided the principal with descriptions of some of the text messages, some of which were sexually explicit. In some, the coach stated that he loved her, did not want her to be with her boyfriend, and wanted to marry her. In addition, the victim suggested to the principal that he speak with another student about similar conduct.

The coach denied that the texts contained any sexual content. Nevertheless, the principal asked him to step aside from his coaching duties while he conducted an investigation, in which he relayed at least some information about the accusations to the school’s athletic director, a friend who was a local police chief, the assistant coach of the girls’ basketball team, the school’s attorneys, and the victim’s parents. The parents were unable to obtain the content of the text messages, but provided phone logs showing that the coach and victim had exchanged thousands of texts in the last few months of 2009.

The principal also contacted the other student the victim identified to investigate whether the coach had an inappropriate relationship with her. This student denied having a physical relationship with the coach, but she suggested that the principal speak with a third student. This student informed the principal that the coach had sent her inappropriate texts before and after her graduation asking about her sexual relations with her boyfriend. She denied having an inappropriate physical relationship with the coach and testified that he never suggested that he wanted to be intimate with her.

Based on the investigation and on the advice of school counsel, the school asked the coach to resign due to the large volume of texts with the victim. The coach resigned a few days later, citing health reasons. No one at the school reported the coach’s texting conduct to law enforcement or the Pennsylvania child protective services agencies.

Following his resignation, the coach applied for a position as a softball coach at a public high school. His application did not mention his position at the Christian school but listed that school’s athletic director as one of several personal references. The athletic director at the public school did not call any of the listed personal references, but obtained all required background and criminal history checks, and all background checks cleared. After being hired as the girls’ softball coach, the coach also applied for an open position as girls’ basketball coach at the same school. He submitted a résumé listing as his reason for leaving his former coaching position a “difference of philosophy” and “heart problems.”

The public school did not hire the coach, but its athletic director did inquire of the athletic director at the Christian school about the coach. The former athletic director stated that the coach had left his coaching position at the Christian school due to an “issue with . . . texting.”

The athletic director informed the principal about the texting issue, and the principal instructed the director to “keep an eye on it” and “watch, see if you see anything.”

During the 2011–2012 school year, there were no complaints from any students or parents about the coach, and he received a positive performance evaluation and returned the following season.

An adolescent female (the “plaintiff”) was on the coach’s softball team during the 2011–2012 and 2012–2013 school years. She did not report any problems with him during her freshman season. Starting in April 2013, during her sophomore season, the coach began sending the plaintiff text messages in which he commented on her looks, and by June 2013, the texts became sexual. During the summer of 2013, the pair engaged in sexual relations. The plaintiff took steps to hide the relationship, but in late September 2013, her parents discovered her sexual relationship with the coach and contacted the police. The coach was arrested and was charged with and pleaded guilty to child pornography and sexual abuse of a minor for his actions with the plaintiff.

The victim later sued the Christian school and school officials for negligence, alleging that these defendants failed to report the coach’s misconduct with the first victim to the civil authorities, and that this failure caused her injury because the coach was not apprehended for his crimes and therefore was free to groom and molest her. A federal district court dismissed all claims against the Christian school, and the case was appealed.

The federal appeals court’s ruling

The plaintiff’s main argument on appeal was that the defendants were liable for her injuries on the basis of their failure to report the abuse as required by the state child abuse reporting law (the Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law), which requires school employees and school administrators to report suspected sexual abuse and exploitation of students. The reporting law specifies:

An administrator and a school employee . . . shall report immediately to law enforcement officials and the appropriate district attorney any report of serious bodily injury or sexual abuse or sexual exploitation alleged to have been committed by a school employee against a student.

The court noted that the reporting law “therefore requires schools to report to law enforcement where there is reasonable cause to suspect sexual abuse or sexual exploitation of a student.” The question in this case was whether the Christian school and its officials had reasonable cause to suspect sexual abuse or exploitation by the coach with the first victim thereby triggering a legal duty to report. The court concluded that such cause existed, and therefore the district court should not have dismissed the case. The court acknowledged the following facts:

When the Christian school principal learned of the first victim’s sexting allegations he investigated them by speaking to the victim, the victim’s parents, the assistant basketball coach who worked with the coach, two other female students rumored to have experienced inappropriate behavior by the coach, the school’s attorneys, and a friend who was a police chief in another jurisdiction. The principal confirmed that the coach had sent the first victim over 3,000 texts between September and December 2009, but the texts had since been deleted. The only remaining evidence of their content was a written record, made by the first victim at her parents’ direction, of what the most suggestive messages had said. The coach denied that the texts contained inappropriate content, and the victim did not assert that the coach had any inappropriate physical sexual contact with her. The principal also followed up on the first victim’s statement that the coach had inappropriate relationships with other students, but these students also denied any physical sexual involvement with the coach. Thus, the principal was able to confirm that coach sent the victim a large number of texts but, on the evidence before him, could not substantiate the “actual proven physical abuse” that he thought the [child abuse reporting law] required.

But, the court insisted that

even if there was no actual proof of physical abuse, a jury could find the victim’s account of the coach’s texts, which allegedly expressed his love and sexual desire for her, combined with the large volume of texts sent by the coach to the victim and the rumors concerning the coach and other female students, sufficient to provide “reasonable cause to suspect . . . sexual abuse or sexual exploitation.” Because a genuine dispute exists as to whether the school defendants were required to report the coach’s conduct to authorities . . . we will vacate the District Court’s order granting summary judgment to the school defendants.

What this means for churches

This case illustrates an important point: A church can be liable on the basis of negligence for an employee’s acts of child molestation if it was aware of prior acts of molestation but failed to report them to the agency designated by state law. The key finding of the court was that even if the school and school officials had no actual proof of sexual abuse, a jury could find that a duty to report arose because the following facts could constitute “reasonable cause to suspect sexual abuse or sexual exploitation of a student”: (1) thousands of emails and text messages were shared between the coach and the first victim; and (2) though the victim claimed that all the texts had been deleted, she did recall that the coach’s texts expressed his love and sexual desire for her.

The bottom line is that to safeguard minors from future abuse, and manage legal risk, the best practice for churches and pastors to follow is to report to the designated state reporting agency all known or reasonably suspected incidents of sexual abuse of a minor. This is so regardless of whether a pastor is a mandatory or permissive reporter, and whether the clergy-penitent privilege excuses a duty to report. Nace v. Pennridge School District, 2018 WL 3737960 (3rd Cir. 2018).

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