Failure to Report Child Abuse

Court sides with church in abuse reporting case.

Church Law and Tax 1996-11-01

Child Abuse

Key point. Some courts have ruled that ministers cannot be sued for failing to report child abuse, if they are not mandatory reporters of child abuse under state law.

The Supreme Court of Iowa ruled that a priest, a church, and a church school were not legally liable for failing to report a case of child abuse, and the church and school were not liable for failing to adequately train their employees on the subject of child abuse reporting. This case arose out of the physical and sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated upon a woman (the victim) by her father, when she was a minor. The victim and her family were members of a Catholic church. The victim and her parents met with their parish priest in 1988 for family counseling. The priest was not a licensed counselor. The victim conceded that she did not tell the priest that her father had sexually abused her but did tell him that he had “hurt” her. She expressed the view that the counseling with the priest focused too strongly on efforts to reunite the family unit rather than on efforts to alleviate the emotional problems she was suffering as a result of past child abuse. The victim sued her former priest, alleging that he failed to report to proper authorities a child abuse situation involving the victim and her father. The victim did not claim that the priest was actually aware of any sexual abuse. She insisted, however, that the priest should have been aware of the abuse based on her statement to him that her father had hurt her. A trial court dismissed the claim against the priest on the ground that he had no duty under state law to report child abuse even if he suspected it. The victim appealed this ruling, and the state supreme court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the woman’s claim against the priest. It observed:

The record presented on the summary judgment motion reflects that [the priest] met with the … family on several occasions for purposes of assisting them in their familial relationship. It appears, however, that his role in these discussions was that of a clergyman counseling the family to work out their differences in accordance with the teachings of the church. We agree with the conclusions of the district court that this involvement in the … familial conflicts did not render him a mandatory reporter of suspected child abuse under the requirements of Iowa Code …. To the extent that … [the child abuse reporting] statute makes a “counselor” a mandatory reporter of child abuse, this is limited to a reasonable belief actually formed by the counselor “in the scope of professional practice.” [The priest’s] professional practice, as it related to the [victim’s] family, was that of clergyman.

The court added the following significant observation: “The legislature did not include members of the clergy among those that are required to report child abuse under [state law]. Because it is common knowledge that clergymen engage in activities within a religious context that might unearth abusive situations, that omission must be deemed to have been a conscious choice to exclude this profession from the reporting requirements of the statute.” The court concluded that since the priest had no statutory or “common law” duty to report child abuse, he could not be sued by the victim for his alleged failure to do so.

The court also rejected the victim’s claims that the church and school were responsible for her injuries because they had negligently failed to establish procedures for reporting child abuse, or properly train their employees in the detection of child abuse. The court noted that under Iowa law all organizations that employ mandatory reporters must provide those employees with two hours of training in child abuse detection and reporting within six months of initial employment and an additional two hours of training every five years. The court noted that the priest was not a mandatory reporter under state law, and so the training requirements did not apply to him. It further noted that the church and school did comply with the training requirements with regard to the mandatory reporters they did employ. The victim insisted that the church had a “common law” duty (not reflected in any statute) to train the priest in the detection and reporting of child abuse. The court agreed that in some cases an employer may be liable for injuries that result because it was negligent in “giving improper or ambiguous orders,” or in “the employment of improper persons or instrumentalities in work involving risk of harm to others.” But the court pointed out that liability in these cases results

not because of the relation of the parties, but because the employer antecedently had reason to believe that an undue risk of harm would exist because of the employment. The employer is subject to liability only for such harm as is within the risk. If, therefore, the risk exists because of the quality of the employee, there is liability only to the extent that the harm is caused by the quality of the employee which the employer had reason to suppose would be likely to cause harm.

The court adopted this rule as “a proper standard for civil claims based on a failure to train employees.” However, it concluded that when the priest was selected by the church, he was “college trained and professionally licensed” in his field, and that

[t]here is nothing in the record … that would permit a finding that [the priest] antecedently had reason to believe that [the priest was] not properly trained in the requirements of [his] professional undertakings or, in particular, that there was any risk associated with the manner in which [he] would perceive situations involving child abuse. There is thus no liability on [the part of the church or school] for a failure to train these [the priest] or to adopt special procedures dealing with the unperceived risk. Wilson v. Darr, 1996 WL 526496 (Iowa, September 18, 1996). [ Failure to Report Child Abuse]

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