Courts Cannot Resolve Clergy Accusations of Wrongful Dismissal

First Amendment prohibits courts from getting involved in ecclesiastical matters.

Church Law and Tax 1995-11-01 Recent Developments

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point: Some courts have listed factors to consider in evaluating the reliability of a child’s accusation of molestation. These factors may be helpful to churches in evaluating allegations of molestation.

A Washington appeals court listed several factors to consider in evaluating the reliability of a child’s claim that he was molested. The factors may be useful to churches in evaluating similar claims. Here they are: (1) an understanding of the obligation to speak the truth on the witness stand; (2) the mental capacity at the time of the occurrence; (3) a memory sufficient to retain an independent recollection of the occurrence; (4) the capacity to express in words his memory of the occurrence; and (5) the capacity to understand simple questions about it. The case involved the criminal prosecution of an adult male for sexually molesting a young girl who was 9 years old at the time of the trial. A trial court concluded that the girl was competent to testify, and largely on the basis of her testimony the jury convicted the alleged offender of first degree child rape and first degree child molestation—despite his vigorous denials of the girl’s testimony. An appeals court, in upholding the convictions, observed:

Here, the [trial] court observed [the minor] and considered both her capacity to understand and her intelligence. The court addressed each [factor mentioned above]. Although [the minor] had difficulty communicating and answering some basic questions, she knew the distinction between the truth and a lie. To determine whether [she] demonstrated the mental capacity to receive an accurate impression of the incident, the court considered [her] ability to recollect details about an automobile accident in Canada which occurred a short time before the incident [of molestation]. [She] remembered who she was with, where her family was and the injuries she suffered. This evidence convinced the court [that she] had the capacity to receive an accurate impression about the sexual incident.

The trial judge, after permitting the girl to testify, remarked: “She made a lost of mistakes in her testimony. I think a lot of it can be brought back to … the nerves that a child of this age would, and did, display on the witness stand.” This is an important observation. Investigations and trials can be overwhelmingly traumatic experiences for young children, and this may cause their statements to be inconsistent and even exaggerated. Such errors do not necessarily mean, however, that the child is not communicating the truth when he or she describes an incident of molestation. Many churches have received allegations of molestation from young children. This case illustrates some of the factors that may be considered in evaluating the truthfulness of those allegations. This will be particularly relevant if the alleged offender denies any wrongdoing. Whenever possible, it is desirable for someone to interview the child who has professional training in dealing with minors involved in abusive situations. Finally, note that in many states church leaders who receive an allegation of child molestation may have a duty to report the incident to the state. The determination of whether or not to report the incident ordinarily must be made within a very short period of time. State v. Pham, 879 P.2d 321 (Wash. App. Div. 3 1994).

See Also: Failure to Report Child Abuse

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