Court Denies Lawsuit Against Clergy for Malpractice

Husband claimed priest’s affair with his wife led to her suicide.

Church Law and Tax1995-11-01Recent Developments

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point: In many states, a husband is barred from suing a minister for seducing his wife. The husband also may be barred from suing the minister’s employing church and parent denomination.

A Louisiana court ruled that an Episcopal diocese was not legally responsible for the suicide of a woman allegedly caused by a sexual relationship with an Episcopal priest. The husband of a woman who committed suicide sued a priest and diocese, claiming that his wife’s suicide had been caused by the sexual misconduct of the priest. The priest was also a physician, but the husband alleged that the priest was acting in his role as a clergyman when he engaged in a counseling relationship with the victim. The husband’s lawsuit alleged that the priest was guilty of malpractice by taking advantage of an emotionally dependent woman and then abusing his position of trust to engage in sexual intercourse with her on numerous occasions. The husband claimed that the priest’s behavior violated the teachings of the Episcopal Church as well as the ninth commandment (“thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife”) and the sixth commandment (“thou shalt not commit adultery”). The husband claimed that the diocese was responsible for his wife’s suicide on the basis of the following factors:

(1) Vicarious liability as the “principal” of the priest with direction and control over the services he provided to the victim.

(2) Failure to investigate (or adequately investigate) the priest as to his emotional, psychological, and moral fitness to be a minister of the Episcopal Church.

(3) Placing the priest in a position in which the victim could receive spiritual services from him.

(4) Failure to adequately train and prepare the priest for the ministry.

(5) Failure to adopt or enforce the Cannons of the Episcopal Church of America.

A trial court rejected the request of the diocese that the case be dismissed, and the diocese appealed. A state appeals court began its opinion by observing that the husband’s lawsuit attempted “to state a claim for clergy malpractice,” and that “[t]o date, no court has acknowledged the existence of a separate cause of action for the malpractice of a clergy member while acting within a clerical capacity.” The court expressed concern that “clergy malpractice” suits would have a “chilling effect” on the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. It quoted with approval from a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court more than a century ago:

It would therefore also be inappropriate and unconstitutional for this Court to determine after the fact that the ecclesiastical authorities negligently supervised or retained the defendant Bishop. Any award of damages would have a chilling effect leading indirectly to state control over the future conduct of affairs of a religious denomination, a result violative of the text and history of the establishment clause. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871).

The court then turned its attention to the husband’s claim that the adulterous relationship between his wife and the priest led to his wife’s suicide:

[The husband] complains about the adulterous sexual relationship between the decedent and [priest] and the effect that relationship may have had on the decedent’s mental state as a cause of her suicide. But they were both adults. As there is no civil nor criminal prohibition against such conduct between adult laypersons the state cannot penalize such conduct because [the defendant] was an Episcopal priest. To do so would require this court to determine the standards of the Episcopal Church and then put the weight of the state behind those standards or to require a different standard of behavior of the clergy, neither of which is permissible. (emphasis added)

The court then addressed the husband’s claim that the priest’s behavior violated the Ten Commandments as well as the Canons of the Episcopal Church. It observed simply that

this court has no right to interpret religious doctrine … nor standards of religious behavior …. This is a secular court. If sexual or other conduct of a priest violates secular standards, e.g., child molestation, this court will impose whatever civil or criminal secular sanctions may be appropriate. But this court has no authority to determine or enforce standards of religious conduct and duty.

In support of its conclusion that neither the priest nor diocese could be sued as a result of the wife’s suicide, the court quoted from a federal court ruling in New York:

It would be impossible for a court or jury to adjudicate a typical case of clergy malpractice, without first ascertaining whether the cleric … performed within the level of expertise expected of a similar professional … following his calling, or practicing his profession within the community ….

Any effort by this court to instruct the trial jury as to the duty of care which a clergyman should exercise, would of necessity require the court or jury to define and express the standard of care to be followed by other reasonable [Episcopalian] clergy of the community. This in turn would require the court and the jury to consider the fundamental perspective and approach to counseling inherent in the beliefs and practices of that denomination. This is as unconstitutional as it is impossible. Schmidt v. Bishop, 779 F.Supp. 321 (S.D.N.Y. 1991).

“What it comes down to,” the Louisiana court concluded, “is that the secular state was not equipped to ascertain the competency of counseling when performed by those affiliated with religious organizations.” And, since the priest could not maintain a lawsuit against the priest, “there can be no claim against the Episcopal Diocese based on any theory of responsibility for [the priest’s] actions.” The court also dismissed the husband’s allegation of “negligent selection” of the priest by the diocese, by referring to the Schmidt case (quoted above):

Furthermore, any inquiry into the policies and practices of the church defendants in hiring or supervising their clergy raises the same kind of first amendment problems of entanglement discussed above, which might involved the court in making sensitive judgments about the propriety of the church defendants’ supervision in light of their religious beliefs …. The traditional denominations each have their own intricate principles of governance, as to which the state has no rights of visitation. Church governance is founded in scripture, modified by reformers over almost two millennia [sic]. As the Supreme Court stated long [ago]: “It is not to be supposed that the judgment of the civil courts can be as competent in the ecclesiastical law and religious faith of all these bodies as the blest men in each are in reference to their own. It would therefore be an appeal from the more learned tribunal in the law which should decide the case, to one which is less so.”

In summary, this case is significant for a number of reasons, including the following:

(1) It is further confirmation of the unwillingness of the civil courts to permit clergy or their employing churches to be sued on the basis of malpractice.

(2) The court’s reference to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the Watson case is compelling. The Supreme Court stated that finding a religious organization liable for the negligent supervision or retention of clergy would be unconstitutional!

(3) The court joined the federal district court in New York (along with other courts) in refusing to find a denominational agency liable for the “negligent selection” of a minister who engages in sexual relations with a counselee.

(4) The court noted that since there is no civil nor criminal prohibition against sexual relations between adult laypersons the state cannot impose such liability when one of the adults is a minister. To do otherwise would “require a different standard of the clergy,” which would not be permissible.

(5) In a concurring opinion, another member of the Louisiana court observed that the diocese could not be guilty of “negligent selection” of the priest since “the adulterous relationship between the plaintiff’s deceased wife and the [priest] apparently occurred after he was ordained, was the only adulterous relationship he engaged in, and was not known by the diocese.” In other words, a denominational agency cannot be liable for “negligent selection” when a minister’s sexual misconduct occurs after ordination and the agency was aware of no prior misconduct. Roppolo v. Moore, 644 So.2d 206 (La. App. 4 Cir. 1994).

See Also: Seduction of Counselees and Church Members | Negligent Selection | Negligent Supervision | Negligence as a Basis for Liability – Defenses | Cases Finding Denominations Not Liable

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