Can a church be liable for repeated acts of sexual assault on a minor by a Sunday School teacher? No, concluded a California appeals court in an important ruling.
A volunteer Sunday School teacher began picking up a second grade boy each Sunday morning and evening allegedly for church services, and on Thursday evenings to participate in a church visitation program. This relationship continued for two years, during which time the teacher frequently molested the boy. The boy's mother had no suspicion that her son was being sexually abused by the teacher. On the contrary, she felt the teacher was an ideal adult who was fulfilling the role of "second father" for her son, whose real father was suffering from a serious illness.
Eventually, the teacher was arrested and charged with 47 counts of child molestation, including 9 counts against the boy in question. Thereafter, a lawsuit was brought against the church, alleging assault, battery, and infliction of emotional distress. The state appeals court began its opinion by observing that an employer can be liable for the misconduct of employees or volunteers only if the misconduct was committed "within the scope of the employment."
The court continued: "Certainly [the teacher] was not employed to molest young boys. There is no evidence the acts occurred during Sunday School …. There is no evidence to suggest that [the teacher's] conduct was actuated by a purpose to serve [the church]. Rather, the acts were independent, self-serving pursuits unrelated to church activities. Finally, [the teacher's] acts of sexual molestation were not foreseeable 'in light of the duties he was hired to perform.' There is no aspect of a Sunday School teacher's or member's duties that would make sexual abuse anything other than highly unusual and very startling. We conclude [the teacher's] acts against [the boy] were neither required, incidental to his duties, nor foreseeable. They were, therefore, not within the scope of his employment."
The court based its decision in part on an earlier California appeals court ruling that had dismissed a lawsuit against the Archbishop of Los Angeles Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church for the alleged sexual molestation of a 16-year old girl by two priests. The court in the earlier case had similarly concluded that "it would defy every notion of logic and fairness to say that sexual activity between a priest and a parishioner is characteristic of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church. There is simply no basis for imputing liability for the alleged conduct of the individual priests … to the Archbishop." Scott v. Central Baptist Church, 243 Cal. Rptr. 128 (4th Dist. App. 1988)