Key point 10-10.2. Many courts have ruled that the First Amendment prevents churches from being legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for the sexual misconduct of ministers.
Key point 10-09.1. Some courts have found churches liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation on the ground that the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the victim or of its own programs and activities.
* A Tennessee court ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented it from resolving a negligent hiring claim brought by a victim of childhood sexual abuse against the offending priest and his diocese, but did not prevent it from resolving a negligent supervision claim. In rejecting the victim’s negligent hiring claim against the diocese, the court observed: “The exercise of jurisdiction over matters pertaining to its decision of whom to hire and retain as a priest or clergyman would require an extensive entanglement into matters of religious doctrine or polity. Accordingly, the court may not exercise jurisdiction over [the victim’s lawsuit] insofar as it is based on claims of negligent hiring and negligent retention.”
However, the court concluded that the victim’s negligent supervision claim was not barred by the First Amendment:
The diocese asserts that the courts may not impose a duty on [it] with respect to the supervision of the diocese’s priests. To the extent that the imposition of such a duty would impact [its] supervision of a priest’s acts in matters of faith or doctrine, we must agree. However, this lawsuit implicates no doctrinal, theological, policy or internal administrative matter. Rather, it pertains only to the diocese’s duty to safeguard the physical safety of the children in its care. Although the diocese may hire and retain whomever it chooses as a priest, forgive whatever sins or shortcomings that priest may have, and supervise a priest’s duties insofar as doctrinal or theological matters are concerned in whatever manner it chooses, it may not hide behind the First and Fourteenth Amendments to avoid imposition of a civil duty of care to safeguard children against sexual abuse by its employees, including its priests.
Clearly, the Diocese’s duty to supervise its priests so as to prevent instances of child abuse can be imposed using neutral principles of law and without resort to or entanglement in matters of doctrine, theology or polity. We must agree with the Supreme Court of Mississippi that “the cloak of religion, which does not shield religious institutions from civil responsibility for fraud or breach of contract, surely cannot serve to shield such institutions from civil responsibility for more abhorrent conduct such as sexual molestation of a child. Nor should it shield those who fail in their duty to protect children from it.” Roman Catholic Diocese v. Morrison, 905 So.2d 1213 (Miss. 2005).
As we previously have stated, although the law cannot interfere with matters of religious doctrine or belief, it may interfere with conduct even when that conduct is motivated by religious doctrine when a compelling state interest is implicated. Some religious acts and practices by individuals must yield to the common good. We cannot fathom a more compelling state interest than the protection of children against sexual abuse. We can imagine no more neutral principle of tort law than that which imposes a duty upon an employer to supervise its employees in a manner designed to safeguard against the sexual abuse of minors.
Although the court concluded that the diocese could be sued for negligent supervision, it dismissed the case on the ground that it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. Redwing v. Catholic Bishop, 2010 WL 2106222 (Tenn. App. 2010).
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