Personal Injuries – Part 1

On Church Property or During Church Activities

Church Law and Tax 1990-03-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Property or During Church Activities

Can a woman who is sexually seduced by her Lutheran minister during counseling sessions sue the minister, her church, and her denomination? That was the issue before an Oregon state appeals court in a recent decision. The woman sued the minister for “intentional infliction of emotional distress” and “breach of confidential relationship”. She sued her church on the grounds that it was legally responsible for the acts of its minister and for “negligent supervision” of its minister. She also sued the regional office (North Pacific District) of the American Lutheran Church, arguing that it was also liable for alleged negligent supervision of its churches and clergy, and also that its procedure for removing the minister from office involved her in a confrontational process that caused her emotional harm. The woman alleged that her minister abused his pastoral and counseling relationships with her by “manipulating” her into have sexual relations with him. She claimed to have suffered sexual abuse, extreme emotional distress, physical illness, loss of sleep and memory, clinical depression, and loss of her “ability to trust other adults, to trust authority, and to deal with religion and faith in God.” A trial court dismissed the entire lawsuit, and the woman appealed to a state appeals court. The appeals court began its opinion by emphasizing that dismissing a lawsuit is an extraordinary act of a trial court and requires that the plaintiff’s petition state no facts that could give rise to legal liability. The court concluded that the woman’s lawsuit did state facts, which if proven true, could possibly result in legal liability. As a result, it reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the case, and ordered the case to proceed to trial. The court concluded that the facts alleged in the lawsuit stated a claim for breach of confidential relationship and intentional infliction of emotional distress by the minister. It rejected the minister’s argument that the claims against him were really an attempt to sue him for “seduction”—a legal theory that had been eliminated by the Oregon legislature in 1973. The fact that the minister allegedly used seduction as a means of breaching his confidential relationship with the woman, and to intentionally cause her emotional distress, did “not convert her claim into one for seduction.” The court also rejected the minister’s claim that the lawsuit violated his constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. The court also found that the lawsuit stated facts that, if proven true, would create legal liability for the church on the basis of both “negligent supervision” and “respondeat superior.” Under the respondeat superior doctrine, an employer is legally responsible for the acts of an employee committed within the scope of employment. The court conceded that the church may well be able to prove at trial that the minister’s acts were not committed within the scope of his employment. But it could not agree with the trial court that the lawsuit failed to state facts that might establish legal liability. Similarly, it concluded that the lawsuit stated facts that could give rise to church liability for “negligent supervision.” Specifically, the lawsuit alleged that the church “knew or should have known that [the minister] was not adequately trained as a counselor and that it knew or should have known that he had misused his position in the past to take advantage or parishioners and counseled persons … [and] failed to investigate claims of his sexual misconduct [or] warn parishioners of his misuse of his position ….” The court stressed that it was not finding the church responsible. Rather, it simply was rejecting the trial court’s conclusion that the lawsuit failed to state facts for which the law provides a remedy. Finally, the court found that the trial court improperly dismissed the claims against the North Pacific District of the American Lutheran Church, since the lawsuit stated facts which (if true) could result in legal liability. The court again emphasized that it was not finding the District liable. On the contrary, it acknowledged that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom “may provide the [District] with an affirmative defense at some later stage of the proceeding.” What is the relevance of this case to other churches and denominations? Consider the following: (1) It suggests that churches can be sued for the sexual improprieties of their ministers. While it is doubtful that a church will be liable under the respondeat superior doctrine (seduction is not within the “scope of employment”), it is conceivable that a church could be legally liable for “negligent supervision” if it knew (or should have known) of previous sexual improprieties of a minister but failed to limit further counseling opportunities, closely supervise the minister, or warn counselees. (2) It suggests that denominations can be sued for negligently supervising clergy who are known to have engaged in sexual improprieties. Of course, if a church or denomination is unaware of any information that would cause it to believe that a particular minister is a potential threat, then it is very unlikely that it would ever be found liable for negligent supervision. Further, the potential liability of a denomination will depend largely on the degree of control and supervision that it retains over the day-to-day activities of its clergy. The less authority that a denomination has to supervise clergy, the less likely a claim of negligent supervision becomes. Erickson v. Christenson, 781 P.2d 383 (Or. App. 1989).

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