Key point 10-07. A church may exercise reasonable care in selecting ministers or other church workers but still be responsible for their misconduct if it “retained” them after receiving information indicating that they posed a risk of harm to others.
Key point 10-09.1. Some courts have found churches liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation on the ground that the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the victim or of its own programs and activities.
An Illinois appeals court affirmed a youth pastor’s prison sentence of 40 years for predatory sexual assault of two 12-year-old girls.A youth pastor (the “defendant”) engaged in grooming behavior with two 12-year-old girls that culminated in sexual contact.
The grooming behavior with victim 1 included numerous “love letters” and emails. Sexual contact occurred during “Bible quiz” tournaments at three churches. Eventually, the victim informed her parents of the defendant’s conduct, and the parents informed the police. Several police officers executed a search warrant on defendant’s apartment and seized a laptop computer. The defendant’s wife later gave the officers a second laptop computer. The computers were subjected to forensic analysis, and images of child pornography were found. One computer had almost 14,000 images and the other computer had over 15,000 images.
The defendant informed the police that he met one of the victims at church and their relationship “grew from there.” The defendant said that his relationship with the victim eventually became inappropriate, but that was not his intention in the beginning. He stated that he developed a “spiritual mentorship” with the victim and that he “had a deep desire pretty much his whole life to be someone’s hero, someone’s leader, helping them in all facets of life.” Defendant said that the victim “attached herself” to him and looked up to him, and he took advantage of that.
The trial court sentenced defendant to 21 years’ imprisonment. In support of the sentence, the court found that the offense threatened serious “psychological, developmental, and emotional harm to the victim.” The court also considered that defendant was in a position of trust or supervision and that the offense occurred in a place of worship. The court also found it relevant that defendant destroyed some evidence upon learning that his relationship with the victim had been exposed. The court stated that the evidence showed that defendant was “clearly sexually attracted to preadolescent females” which it concluded “could be a propensity for future offenses.” The defendant asked for a lighter sentence based on a lack of any prior history of criminal conduct, and the fact that he pled guilty and accepted responsibility for his actions. The appeals court affirmed the 21-year sentence, finding that it was reasonable.
Victim 2 was a 12-year-old girl whom the defendant had groomed much like victim 1, including with multiple letters and emails expressing love and devotion. As with victim 1, the grooming culminated in sexual contact. The defendant was charged with four counts of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child. He pled guilty to one count, and was sentenced to 19 years in prison. The state appeals court affirmed this sentence, and rejected the defendant’s request for a lighter sentence.
What this means for churches
There are several lessons to be learned from these two cases, including the following.
First, they illustrate the serious consequences associated with child sexual abuse. The defendant, despite his lack of a criminal history and his confession and remorse, was sentenced to a combined sentence of 40 years in a state penitentiary.
Second, these cases present textbook cases of “grooming” behavior by pedophiles. The defendant targeted the two victims by showering them with attention and expressions of affection in countless letters and emails. The takeaway lesson for church leaders is the importance of recognizing grooming behavior by youth and children’s ministers and lay volunteers and taking steps to promptly expose and stop it.
Third, most of the defendant’s romantic communications with the victims were by email. It is entirely inappropriate for youth and children’s pastors and lay teachers and volunteers to communicate via social media or email with minors. Such behavior should be unequivocally prohibited by church policy, and violators should be removed immediately. Church leaders should check with the local public school district to see what policy it has adopted regarding communications by teachers with minors via email and social media. In many if not most cases, they will find that the school district has adopted a zero tolerance policy. People v. Lawrence, 2018 IL App (3d) 160004 (Ill. App. 2018).
Editor’s note: Church Law & Tax offers various resources for reducing the chance of a child or teen being harmed in your ministry, including the Reducing the Risk training program and the Youth Ministry in the #MeToo Era.