Man Sues Priest and Archdiocese Over Abuse Suffered as Teen

Court dismissed lawsuit due to lack of support for claims.

Church Law and Tax 1997-01-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Other Church Workers

Key point. Some courts refuse to hold churches liable for the sexual misconduct of clergy on the basis of respondeat superior, breach of fiduciary duty, or negligence.

A Missouri court ruled that a Catholic archdiocese could not be sued as a result of the molestation of a minor by a priest. A 34—year—old man sued a priest and archdiocese, claiming that the priest had molested him when he was 13 years of age while attending a Catholic parochial school. The victim claimed to have suffered numerous injuries as a result of the priest’s acts, including severe emotional distress, lost earnings, sexual addiction and dysfunction, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. When the victim was 32, he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide and was hospitalized. During his hospitalization, he claimed that he discovered that his emotional problems were the result of the sexual abuse he suffered when he was 13. The victim’s lawsuit alleged that the archdiocese was responsible for his injuries on the following grounds: respondeat superior, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligent hiring and supervision of the priest. A trial court dismissed all claims against the archdiocese, and the victim appealed. A state appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision. It conceded that the statute of limitations may bar the victim’s lawsuit, but it concluded that the victim had alleged sufficient facts as to when he could have discovered the connection between the abuse and his emotional difficulties to avoid a dismissal of his lawsuit on this ground. However, the court concluded that the lawsuit had to be dismissed since the victim’s claims against the archdiocese were without any support.

Respondeat superior

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is responsible for injuries caused by the negligence of an employee acting within the course and scope of his or her employment. An act is committed within “the scope and course of employment” if it is done by virtue of the employment and in furtherance of the business or interest of the employer, regardless of the time or motive of the conduct. The court concluded that the archdiocese could not be responsible for the victim’s injuries on this ground since the priest’s acts “clearly were not part of [his] duties as a priest or as a teacher, nor were they intended to further any religious or educational interests of the Catholic Church.”

Breach of fiduciary duty

The victim claimed that the relationship between an adolescent student and a parish priest and church school is a “fiduciary relationship” that demands the highest degree of ethical behavior, and that this duty was violated by the priest’s actions. The court noted that “Missouri courts have not addressed whether clergy and religious organizations can be held civilly liable in actions for breach of fiduciary duty with respect to sexual misconduct of clergy.” The court reviewed the law in other states, and noted that some courts had recognized such a theory of liability (Colorado, New York, Oregon) while others had not (Nebraska, New York, and Illinois).

The court chose to “align ourselves with the jurisdictions that have refused to recognize breach of fiduciary duty actions against clergy for sexual misconduct.” It noted that

[i]n those cases, the courts held that analyzing and defining the scope of fiduciary duty owed persons by their clergy (assuming pastoral relationships were “fiduciary”) would require courts to define and express the standard of care followed by reasonable clergy of the particular faith involved, which in turn “would require the court and the jury to consider the fundamental perspective and approach to counseling inherent in the beliefs and practices of that denomination. This is as unconstitutional as it is impossible. It fosters excessive entanglement with religion.” Schmidt v. Bishop, 779 F.Supp. 321 (S.D.N.Y.1991).

Further, while it may be argued that “it requires no excessive entanglement with religion to decide that reasonably prudent clergy of any sect do not molest children,” allowing actions for breach of fiduciary duty in such situations places courts “on the slippery slope and is an unnecessary venture, since existing laws … provide adequate protection for society’s interests.”

The court noted that victims of child sexual abuse can sue clergy on the basis of other theories of liability (such as intentional infliction of emotional distress) that do not require the courts to become involved in religious concerns.

Negligent hiring and supervision

The court concluded that the victim’s claims of negligence in the hiring and supervision of the priest “raise first amendment concerns which may need to be addressed” by the civil courts.


The court cautioned that “[c]lergy and religious organizations are not absolutely immune from civil liability. Tort actions against religious groups or persons are not offensive to the first amendment if based on purely secular activities, unrelated to their religious functions; if the alleged wrongdoing was clearly outside the tenets of the religion, notwithstanding its religious pretext, then it is actionable.” H.R.B. v. J.L.G., 913 S.W.2d 92 (Mo. App. 1996).

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