• Key point. Churches ordinarily will not be liable on the basis of respondeat superior or negligence for acts of child molestation perpetrated by clergy or other church workers in their own homes.
An Ohio court ruled that a hospital was not liable for a chaplain’s acts of child molestation. A Catholic priest was assigned by his religious order to serve both as a hospital chaplain and as a campus minister. On several occasions he sexually molested a minor male. The victim later sued the hospital and college, claiming that they were legally responsible for the priest’s conduct on the basis of “respondeat superior” (i.e., an employer is liable for acts of its employees committed within the scope of their employment) and negligent hiring. A trial court dismissed the victim’s lawsuit, and the case was appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court. In rejecting the respondeat superior claim the court observed: “It is well established that in order for an employer to be liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior, the tort of the employee must be committed within the scope of employment. For an intentional act committed by an employee to be within the scope of employment, the act must be calculated to facilitate or promote the business for which the servant was employed.” The court concluded that “sexual assault cannot be said to be characteristic of the activities of a hospital or a college, and it can be said to be an act so divergent that the employer—employee relationship is severed by its performance.” Further, the court emphasized that the acts of molestation occurred in the chaplain’s home and were unrelated to any hospital or campus activity:
[I]t was not reasonably foreseeable to the hospital or the college that [the chaplain] would engage in such conduct beyond the scope of his official duties with someone who was neither a student at the college nor a patient at the hospital. The alleged sexual assaults took place in [his] residence at night. [The victim] was not a patient at the hospital or a student at the college; his relationship with [the chaplain] arose from [his] contacts with [the chaplain] at his school and parish. Their relationship was not in any way influenced by [the chaplain’s] role as either campus minister or hospital chaplain. Indeed, the fact that the [victim’s] family maintained a close relationship with [the priest] through his various assignments in the diocese demonstrates that the family’s relationship with [him] was separate from his roles with his various employers. Therefore, we hold that the trial court was correct in concluding that the alleged sexual assaults fell outside the scope of [the priest’s] employment as a hospital chaplain or campus minister. Accordingly, neither the hospital nor the college is liable … under a theory of respondeat superior.
The court also rejected the victim’s claim that the hospital and college were responsible for the chaplain’s conduct on the basis of negligent hiring:
[L]iability under a theory of negligent supervision is premised on the employment relationship. In the case at hand, the alleged attacks did not occur while [the chaplain] was working at the hospital or the college; the alleged assaults occurred in [his] private residence at night. The [victim] failed to come forward with any evidence that the hospital or college had any right or duty to supervise [the chaplain] outside the employment context ….
Although the employment relationship of a priest is not conducive to an “office hours” definition, even if one accepts the broader definition of employment as a certain role or capacity, [the chaplain] was acting outside these as well at the time that the alleged assaults occurred. [The victim] was staying with [the chaplain] at the times of the alleged attacks because of the [victim’s] family’s friendship with their former parish priest. [The chaplain’s] interaction with [the victim] was completely unrelated to [his] role as either hospital chaplain or campus minister. Thus, the [victim] failed to establish a duty on the part of the hospital or the college to supervise [the chaplain] at the time of the alleged assaults. Gebhart v. College of Mount St. Joseph, 665 N.E.2d 223 (Ohio App. 1995). [ Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability]
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