Clergy – Part 1

Legal Liability

Church Law and Tax 1990-05-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Legal Liability

A Minnesota minister was convicted on four felony counts of “psychotherapist-patient criminal sexual conduct” for engaging in sexual relations with a female counselee. The minister served as senior pastor of a Christian Missionary Alliance Church. In 1985, he was approached by a married female member who desired counseling for low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, grief, compulsions, an eating disorder, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The first several counseling sessions consisted of a discussion of Bible passages. In time, the pastor began discussing sexual issues although the woman insisted that she had not sought counseling for such matters. The pastor persisted in discussing sex, saying that sex was a “gift from God” and that he was “working” with her on her sexuality. After several sessions, the woman’s husband and a close friend advised her to seek other help since she did not appear to be improving. The pastor insisted that terminating the counseling relationship had to be a mutual decision, and that it was “nobody else’s business”. At the conclusion of one counseling session that explored the subject of grief, the pastor gave the woman a brief hug, which she thought was appropriate but did not want to continue. The following week she asked the pastor if they were engaged in “normal counseling,” and he replied that he loved her. The session ended with the two engaged in hugging and passionate kissing. Two days later, the woman went back to clarify that their relationship would remain “platonic” and non-sexual. At that meeting, the two engaged in hugging and kissing. The pastor gave the woman a rose as a symbol that their relationship would forever remain “pure and chaste from afar” and that he would “maintain her virginity”. A couple of weeks later, the woman returned to the pastor’s office one evening and again the following morning. The two engaged in sexual fondling. This conduct was during her menstrual period, and the pastor assured her that their behavior would “help her work through negative issues about her menstrual period.” A month later, the two went to a motel and engaged in sexual intercourse for the first time. The woman testified that the pastor assured her that it was a “good” sexual encounter because he was unselfish. He also informed her that sex between a counselor and counselee was a felony in Minnesota. Shortly after this incident, the woman gave the pastor a signed letter stating “I, the undersigned, have given [my pastor] control of my life—my future—out of my abiding love for him.” The two engaged in sexual intercourse on at least two other occasions over the next few months. The woman testified that the pastor assured her that sexual contact and intercourse was consistent with her “treatment” because it would remove her inhibitions about sex “set her free” from her sexual “hang-ups”. A short time later, the two left town at the pastor’s request. At his request, the woman issued him checks amounting to $11,000. The pastor was later prosecuted for four felony counts of criminal sexual contact. Minnesota law imposes a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for either (1) “sexual contact” by a “psychotherapist” with an “emotionally dependent” patient, or (2) sexual contact by a psychotherapist with a patient occurring by means of “therapeutic deception”. Minnesota law imposes a penalty of up to 20 years for either (1) sexual intercourse by a “psychotherapist” with an “emotionally dependent” patient, or (2) sexual intercourse by a psychotherapist with a patient occurring by means of “therapeutic deception”. A jury convicted the pastor on all four felony counts, and he appealed. In upholding the conviction, a state appeals court concluded that the pastor was a psychotherapist since he had assumed the role of a counselor, and that he had in fact committed both sexual contact and sexual intercourse with an “emotionally dependent” patient, and that the sexual contact and intercourse occurred because of “therapeutic deception”. In concluding that the woman was “emotionally dependent” on the pastor, the court relied on the testimony of expert witnesses who stated that “there is a power imbalance in a pastoral counseling setting because the client idealizes the pastor.” The court also referred to (1) 32 notes and cards the woman had sent the pastor, (2) the fact that the woman had “signed over her life” to the pastor, (3) the fact that the woman had violated her strongly held religious beliefs and instincts to engage in what she felt was a very sinful relationship, and (4) the $11,000 she gave the pastor at his request. The court also concluded that the sexual contact and sexual intercourse had occurred “because of therapeutic deception”. In reaching this conclusion, the court referred to the pastor’s frequent assurances that sexual contact and intercourse were part of the woman’s “ongoing treatment” and were necessary to remove her inhibitions and hang-ups. In rejecting the pastor’s claim that he had a constitutional right to engage in consensual sexual relations with whomever he chose, the court ruled that no constitutional right protects a pastor who engages in sexual activity as part of religious counseling. The court observed: “These statutes are meant to protect vulnerable persons and allow them to reposit trust in those who can help them. The legislature has recognized the emotional devastation that can result when a psychotherapist takes advantage of a patient.” State v. Dutton, 450 N.W.2d 189 (Minn. App. 1990).

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