Ministers’ and Churches’ Liability for Sexual Misconduct

Who can be found liable for a minister’s misconduct?

Church Law and Tax 1997-03-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point. Ministers who engage in sexual contacts with adults may be legally responsible for their behavior on a number of grounds, including breach of a fiduciary duty and outrageous conduct. In addition, their employing church may be responsible for their behavior on the basis of negligent hiring, negligent supervision, outrageous conduct, and ratification. The courts can resolve such claims so long as they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine.

A Colorado court ruled that a minister, his church, and a denominational agency could be sued by a woman with whom the minister had sexual contacts. A woman (the victim) attended a church for a few years, and began to volunteer her services for a variety of activities including the remodeling of a classroom. She engaged in these volunteer services on the recommendation of a therapist who suggested that she work in a “safe environment” to overcome her fears of the workplace. The victim’s volunteer work caused her to come in contact with her minister after normal working hours. On one occasion the minister approached her while she was remodeling a classroom, began caressing her back, and told her “I love you Dianne, you mean so much to me.” Following this incident the victim became physically ill and cried. A few days later, the minister called the victim into his office where the two of them sat next to each other on a small couch. The minister again caressed her and expressed his love for her. Following a third incident, the victim informed two other women in the church about the minister’s behavior, and one responded, “Oh my God, not you too.” A few months later a denominational agency with which the church was affiliated held a meeting in response to a formal complaint it had received regarding the minister’s conduct. Six women attended this meeting, and all described similar incidents of unwelcome verbal comments and physical contact involving the minister. As a result of this meeting, the minister was suspended. The victim later sued the minister, her church, and the denominational agency. She claimed that the minister breached his fiduciary duty toward her, and committed outrageous conduct. She claimed that the church and denominational agency breached their fiduciary duty toward her, and also engaged in negligent hiring, negligent supervision, outrageous conduct, and ratification of the minister’s actions. In particular, the victim alleged that the agency had been made aware of at least one prior act of sexual misconduct involving the minister, and was aware that he had a problem with alcohol abuse. The church and the victim reached an out of court settlement, and a trial court returned a verdict against the minister and denominational agency. The case was appealed, and a state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The court began its opinion by rejecting the denominational agency’s assertion that the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause barred the victim’s claims against it. The agency insisted that the ordination and discipline of ministers was an ecclesiastical matter involving theological concerns over which the civil courts cannot exercise jurisdiction. The court noted simply that neither the minister nor the agency claimed that the minister’s “method of communicating with parishioners by touching, hugging, and expressing affection was based on any religious tenet or belief.”

The court also rejected the claim that no fiduciary relationship existed between the victim and either the minister of the agency. The court noted that the minister had counseled the victim on personal and intimate matters, and that such counseling was enough to establish a fiduciary relationship. The court further noted that the following facts supported the existence of a fiduciary relationship between the victim and the denominational agency: the agency conducted a meeting with six women regarding the minister’s behavior; the agency provided a therapist to help the women; the agency sent a letter to the church’s membership stating in part that “we are equally concerned for the healing of any persons who have been hurt. They will continue to receive appropriate help for their healing and restoration.”

The victim claimed that the denominational agency breached its fiduciary duty by failing to provide adequate counseling to the six women; undermining the credibility of the women by informing the congregation that there was nothing in the minister’s personnel file indicating he had problems; failing to protect the women who brought complaints against the minister from verbal attacks; and not informing the congregation that it found the women’s complaints credible. The court concluded that sufficient evidence existed for the jury to conclude that the agency breached its fiduciary duty.

Finally, the court rejected the denominational agency’s argument that it was protected from liability as a result of a Colorado statute that provides: “No member of the board of directors of a nonprofit corporation or nonprofit organization shall be held liable for actions taken or omissions made in the performance of his duties as a board member except for wanton and willful acts or omissions .” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13—21—116. Many states have enacted similar statutes to protect board members of nonprofit corporations. In most cases, the protections of the statute do not apply to compensated directors, or to wanton or willful acts or omissions. The court noted that this provision did not apply in this case, since there was no evidence that the agency “accomplished its work through unpaid volunteers.”

What is the significance of this ruling? Consider the following points: First, it illustrates the risks churches face in not establishing appropriate boundaries. The church never should allowed the victim to work after hours when the minister was present. Second, the case illustrates the risk that churches and denominational agencies face when they employ a minister with a record of prior misconduct. The court concluded that the denominational agency was guilty of negligent hiring because it appointed the minister to the church despite knowledge of prior acts of sexual misconduct. Third, the case illustrates how easily a denominational agency can become involved in a “fiduciary relationship” with church members. Such a relationship exposes the agency to liability if its fiduciary duty to church members is violated. Fourth, the court’s discussion of how the agency breached its fiduciary duty is instructive. Winkler v. Rocky Mouton Conference, 923 P.2d 152 (Colo. App. 1995). [ Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligent Selection as a Basis for Liability]

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