Husband Cannot Sue Pastor for Affair with His Wife

Court cites state law.

Church Law and Tax 1993-07-01 Recent 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 and breaking up his marriage. The husband also is barred from suing the minister’s employing church. However, the wife is not necessarily prevented from maintaining her own lawsuit against the minister.

A Louisiana appeals court ruled that a husband whose wife had allegedly been seduced by his pastor could not sue the pastor or his church. A husband alleged that he asked his pastor (a Catholic priest) to counsel him regarding his marital problems. The priest declined because of his close relationship with the husband and his family. The husband and wife eventually were separated, and the wife admitted herself to a drug dependency program at a local hospital. It was at this time, the husband alleged, that the priest used his influence and authority to win the affections of the wife and to engage in a sexual affair. The husband further alleged that the affair between his wife and the priest led directly to the break up of his marriage. The husband and his four minor children sued the priest and their church, seeking more than $7 million in damages. The father alleged that he and his children had suffered deep psychological problems as a result of the priest’s conduct that would “last forever” because of their devout faith and their trust in their church. The lawsuit alleged that the priest was guilty of clergy malpractice and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It also alleged that the church was negligent in failing to properly supervise the priest, and in appointing the priest and allowing him to continue his priestly duties when they should have known of his propensity to engage in sexual misconduct. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit and the father and his children appealed. An appeals court upheld the dismissal of the case. First, it noted that the state of Louisiana abolished the tort of “alienation of a wife’s affections” in 1927, and that this prevented the husband from suing his priest for clergy malpractice. However, the court stressed that it was not addressing the issue of whether or not a wife who is seduced by a priest can maintain a lawsuit for clergy malpractice. Second, the court rejected the husband’s claim that the priest was guilty of intentional infliction of emotional distress, since such a claim may only be brought by the intended victim (in this case, the wife). The court also concluded that the four minor children could not sue the priest for alienation of their mother’s affections. It acknowledged that a few courts have permitted children to sue third parties for alienation of a parent’s affections, but it chose to follow the vast majority of states that have rejected such a view. Finally, the court ruled that the church could not be liable for the priest’s behavior since the priest himself was not. This case illustrates two important points. First, in many states clergy cannot be sued on the basis of malpractice for “alienating” a wife’s affections. However, note that this not true in all states, and that a growing number of states are imposing criminal penalties upon clergy who seduce counselees. Second, the court warned that it was only addressing the ability of a husband to sue a minister for alienating the affections of his wife. It was not addressing the ability of the wife to maintain a separate lawsuit in her own right against the minister. As noted in many previous articles in this newsletter, such lawsuits against clergy generally have been permitted by the courts. Further, “consent” of the woman generally is not a defense available to a minister in such cases, since a number of courts have concluded that the unique status and authority of clergy can preclude “consent” to sexual advances. Greene v. Roy, 604 So.2d 1359 (La. App. 3 Cir. 1992).

See also Insurance, All American Insurance Company v. Burns, 971 F.2d 438 (10th Cir. 1992), in the recent developments section of this newsletter.
See Also: Seduction of Counselees and Church Members | Negligence as a Basis for Liability

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