• Key point 10-12. Churches face a number of legal risks when they offer counseling services by ministers or laypersons. These include negligent selection, retention, or supervision of a counselor who engages in sexual misconduct or negligent counseling. A church also may be vicariously liable for a counselor’s failure to report child abuse, breach of confidentiality, and breach of a fiduciary relationship.
An Oregon court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented a woman from suing her church and pastor for damages she suffered as a result of the pastor’s repeated and prolonged attempts to cast demons out of her. A woman sought out a pastor for spiritual counseling following her brother’s death. While meeting with the pastor, the woman suffered an anxiety attack, which the pastor interpreted as demon possession. The pastor asked the woman to return for “deliverance” sessions, which she did for several months. At first, the sessions were once a week for six to eight hours; they increased to five and six times a week for up to 14 hours at a time. The pastor repeatedly told the woman that she was possessed by demons, suffered from multiple personality disorder, and had participated in satanic rituals such as human sacrifices, eating human flesh, and sexually deviant behavior. She alleged that if she denied such claims, the pastor and his aides would scream, harass, badger and even slap or restrain her until she admitted the acts. The woman began to believe that she was, in fact, demon possessed. The pastor told her that he was her only hope, that he was the only person in the area who knew how to treat her, and that if she attempted to see a professional counselor, she would be locked up and her children taken away.
The woman’s mental condition deteriorated, and the pastor, apparently realizing that he could not help her, contacted a medical clinic. The woman was hospitalized for four days, and then released to the care of a psychotherapist. The psychotherapist diagnosed the woman as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder both as a result of childhood experiences and her mistreatment by the pastor. The psychotherapist claimed that by inducing a delusional belief system in the woman in which she believed she was involved in a satanic cult and had been taken over by separate personalities, her coping mechanisms were destroyed. The woman, believing that she was unworthy to live, attempted suicide and was again hospitalized for a week. She later sued her church, some four years after her last session with the pastor. The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that the woman had filed her lawsuit after the statute of limitations had expired. The woman insisted that the statute of limitations was “suspended” because of her “insanity.” A trial court rejected the woman’s defense, and ruled that the statute of limitations barred her lawsuit. A state appeals court agreed. It conceded that the woman’s mental condition could suspend the statute of limitations, but only if it “barred her from knowing that [the pastor] had harmed her.” The court concluded that she failed this test. It noted that she had told her psychotherapist that the pastor “is still out there hurting people,” and expressed a desire to stop him.
Application. This case was dismissed because the woman filed her lawsuit too late. What if she had not? It is possible that a court would have found the pastor, and his church, liable for the woman’s injuries. Certainly, the pastor and church would have been able to raise the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom as a defense. But even if this defense were successful, it would have subjected the pastor and church to years of litigation, expense, time, and adverse publicity. Clearly, these risks and costs must be considered by any church engaging in the kind of “counseling” described in this case. Gaspar v. Village Missions, 961 P.2d 286 (Ore. App. 1998). Seduction of Counselees and Church Members
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