Missionary Molests Minor: Is the National Church Liable?

Court rules that crime was not reasonably forseeable.

Key Point 10-04.2. Some courts have found churches not liable on the basis of negligent selection for the molestation of a minor by a church worker since the church exercised reasonable care in the selection of the worker.

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 10-18.2. Most courts have refused to hold denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches, either because of first amendment considerations or because the relationship between the denominational agency and affiliated church or minister is too remote to support liability.

A federal court in Kentucky ruled that a national church was not liable for a missionary's sexual molestation of a minor. A mother sued a national church claiming that one of its missionaries sexually molested her minor son. She alleged that the church was liable for the missionary's acts on the basis of negligent selection and supervision. The court noted that "an employer can be held liable when its failure to exercise ordinary care in hiring or retaining an employee creates a foreseeable risk of harm to a third person." It concluded that the national church was not negligent since the missionary's wrongful acts were not foreseeable:

The mother insisted that the national church was negligent in supervising the missionary as a result of provisions in its missionary handbook forbidding sexual misconduct of any kind, and urging missionaries to avoid being alone with a child or any other person. The court was not persuaded:

The presence of this language in the handbook does not support a finding that the national church was negligent in hiring and supervising [the missionary]. Even if he did not follow the instruction to never be separated and committed an act of sexual abuse while serving as a missionary in violation of the handbook's prohibition of the same, it is not enough to establish negligence on the part of the national church without anything more. Plaintiff has failed to provide any evidence that anyone associated with the church … had reason to believe that he was unfit to serve as a missionary or posed a danger to [the victim] or anyone else. It is ludicrous to suggest that, because the church chose to caution its missionaries against sex outside of marriage and to avoid criminal misconduct or the appearance of impropriety, that it had knowledge that [this missionary] might conceivably engage in sexual abuse and should be liable for such actions.

Application. The court reached the important conclusions that a church cannot be liable for negligent selection of a person who molests a child if it exercised reasonable care in the selection of that person, and cannot be liable on the basis of negligent supervision if the molestation was not reasonably foreseeable based on one or more previous similar incidents. It is worth noting that the court characterized as "ludicrous" the mother's argument that the church was guilty of negligent supervision because of provisions in its missionary manual calling for missionaries never to be alone with a child and to avoid any form of sexual misconduct. Olinger v. Corporation of the President, 521 F.Supp.2d 577 (E.D. Ky. 2007).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, September/October 2008.

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