Clergy – Part 2

Personal Liability

Church Law and Tax 1990-07-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Personal Liability

A Utah court refused to recognize “clergy malpractice” as a basis for legal liability. A minister was approached by a 17-year-old parishioner who informed him that his mother wanted him to fly from Utah to North Carolina to locate and bring back his 19-year-old brother, and to get away from his abusive step-father. The boy indicated that his mother did not have adequate funds to pay for an airline ticket, and he asked if the church could help out. The minister responded that he could not help without the mother’s permission, and accordingly he attempted on several occasions to reach her at work. Unable to reach her by telephone, the minister informed the boy that written permission would suffice. The boy later produced a note purportedly signed by his mother, giving permission for him to travel to North Carolina if the church would pay for a ticket. The minister purchased a ticket with church funds, and the boy was flown to North Carolina. In fact, the boy had forged the note, and the mother was unaware that her son had flown to North Carolina. When she became aware of the circumstances, she sued the minister and his church on a variety of grounds, including clergy malpractice and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A trial court granted the minister and church a summary judgment, and the mother appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court, and summarily rejected the mother’s claims. In rejecting the mother’s charge of clergy malpractice, the court observed: “[The mother] admits that no court has recognized clerical malpractice as a cause of action, but argues that such malpractice exists here, not because [the minister] who had not been trained as a counselor, improperly counseled [the boy], but because he failed to refer [the boy] to trained professionals or others who could assist in resolving the family conflicts. In other words, [the mother] wishes to impose a duty upon [the minister] to make further inquiry into the alleged family conflicts, and then, if beyond his expertise, refer [the boy] to others who are qualified to treat such problems. Under the present circumstances, charging lay clergy with this duty of care goes too far because it approaches the same level of care imposed upon trained professionals in medicine and psychology.” The court quoted with approval from the California Supreme Court’s landmark clergy malpractice ruling in Nally v. Grace Community Church (discussed in depth in the March-April 1989 issue of this newsletter): “Because of the differing theological views espoused by the myriad of religions in our state and practiced by church members, it would certainly be impractical, and quite possibly unconstitutional, to impose a duty of care on pastoral counselors. Such a duty would necessarily be intertwined with the religious philosophy of the particular denomination or ecclesiastical teachings of the religious entity.” The Utah appeals court agreed with the California Supreme Court’s refusal to recognize clergy malpractice as a basis for legal liability, and refused to impose upon clergy a duty to refer parishioners experiencing emotional trauma to medical professionals. The court also rejected all of the other theories of legal liability alleged by the mother. White v. Blackburn, 787 P.2d 1315 (Utah App. 1990).

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