Missionaries’ Sexual Misconduct

Is a denomination liable for the misconduct of its missionaries?

Church Law and Tax 1992-11-01 Recent Developments

Taxation – Church Property

The Supreme Court of Virginia threw out a $1.5 million jury verdict against the Foreign Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. A foreign missionary sexually molested his own children. He was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence. His wife and one of his daughters later sued the missions board. The mother maintained that at a missionary candidates conference conducted just before the family left for missionary service in Africa, she entered into an “oral contract” with the board whereby the board promised that if she and her husband became missionaries the board would provide protection for the health, welfare, and safety of their family. The jury returned a verdict of $1.5 million in favor of the mother and her daughter, and the board appealed to the state supreme court. The supreme court began its opinion by noting that “the standard for determining the intent of the parties to an oral contract is one of reasonable expectation—that is, the meaning which the party using the words should reasonably have expected them to be given by the other party.” The court acknowledged that issues of health and safety were discussed in the context of overseas missionary assignments, and that the mother was concerned about potential physical danger “from sources external to the family unit” stemming from living conditions overseas. However, the court insisted that “there is no evidence which would support a finding that the parties contemplated that the board would be obligated to protect one family member from the criminal actions of another family member. Indeed … although [the father’s] actions were unconscionable and the impact on the family tragic, no reasonable person could conclude that either [the mother] or the board intended that the oral contract regarding the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the [missionary] family encompassed the board’s protection of the children from the felonious acts of [their father].” Since the parties could not have intended or expected that their “oral contract” extended to the protection of the family against the criminal conduct of the father, “the board did not have a contractual duty to protect [the mother and her children] from the unlawful actions of [the father].” Accordingly, the jury’s verdict was reversed and the court entered judgment in favor of the board. Foreign Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention v. Wade, 409 S.E.2d 144 (Va. 1991).

See also the feature article in this newsletter entitled “Liability of Churches and Denominations for the Sexual Misconduct of Clergy.” See also Church records, Hutchison v. Luddy, 606 A.2d 905 (Pa. Super. 1992), and Employment practices, Wheeler v. Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, 829 P.2d 196 (Wash. App. 1992), in the recent developments section of this newsletter.
See Also: Cases Finding Denominations Not Liable

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