Priest Molests Children

Court rules that diocese may be sued for negligent retention and supervision.

Church Law and Tax 1997-07-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key Point. The first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents churches and denominational agencies from being sued as a result of “negligent ordination.”

Key point. Some courts require that a lawsuit brought against a church by a victim of sexual misconduct plead specific facts demonstrating that the church knew of prior similar acts of misconduct by the perpetrator. Vague allegations of what the church “should have known” are not sufficient. Other courts have rejected this view.

Key point. Churches that obtain a positive letter of reference on a worker may not be legally responsible for the workers misconduct on the basis of an alleged failure to investigate further.

• A New York court ruled that a Catholic diocese could not be sued on the basis of negligent hiring for a priests acts of child molestation, but it could be sued for negligent supervision and negligent retention. The offending priest was ordained in Venezuela and moved to the United States in 1983 with a letter of reference from his archbishop. He later molested at least one minor (the “victim”). The victim later sued the local diocese, claiming that it was legally responsible for the priests conduct on the basis of negligent hiring, negligent supervision, and negligent retention. A trial court dismissed all of the victims claims against the diocese, and the victim appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court that the diocese could not be sued on the basis of negligent hiring, but it concluded that the diocese could be sued for negligent supervision and negligent retention. There are a number of important points to the court’s decision that are summarized below.

Pleading specific facts

The diocese claimed that a religious organization cannot be sued by an alleged victim of sexual misconduct unless the lawsuit pleads specific facts demonstrating that the organization was aware that the offender posed a risk of harm to others. The diocese insisted that vague allegations concerning what it “should have known” were insufficient. As noted in previous issues of this newsletter, some courts have reached this very conclusion. The court in this case declined to do so, noting that the state legislature had not adopted such a rule. However, the court did acknowledge that a lawsuit which contains “bare legal conclusions or factual claims which are flatly contradicted by documentary evidence should be dismissed.”

Negligent hiring

The victim claimed that the diocese “had prior knowledge or should have known that the [the priest] was a sexual deviant” and therefore it was negligent in hiring him. The victim further asserted that the diocese failed to “establish proper guidelines and procedures,” failed to “properly screen and hire applicants to the priesthood,” and failed to have the priest examined psychologically to determine his fitness for serving as a priest.

The court conceded that “ordination to the priesthood confers a religious, not legal status, and may be characterized as a quintessentially religious matter. Imposing liability for conferring that status would create serious concerns of excessive entanglement in religious affairs, in violation of the first amendment of the United States Constitution.” However, the court concluded that the question of whether liability “could ever be imposed for ordination to the priesthood” did not have to be answered in this case since the local diocese could not be legally responsible on the basis of negligent hiring for the decision by church officials in Venezuela to ordain the priest. As a result, the local diocese could not be responsible on the basis of negligent hiring for the priests acts of molestation.

A duty to investigate

The victim conceded that the diocese may not have known of the priests propensities when he arrived from Venezuela with a letter of reference, but he insisted that the diocese had a duty to investigate his background before hiring him. The court disagreed. It observed that

[t]here is no common—law duty to institute specific procedures for hiring employees unless the employer knows of facts that would lead a reasonably prudent person to investigate the prospective employee. Since [the priest] came to the [diocese] with a letter of reference from his Archbishop, which gave the [diocese] no reason to believe there was any problem, [it] cannot be charged with negligence for failing to investigate further.

Negligent supervision and negligent retention

The victim alleged that the diocese became aware of the danger the priest posed to minors after hiring him as a result of comments both he and the priest made to other priests regarding inappropriate behavior. The court noted that if the victim or the priest made such statements to other priests, then the diocese might be legally responsible for the priests actions on the basis of negligent retention and negligent supervision.

The court insisted that imposing liability on the diocese under such circumstances “would not violate constitutional and statutory guarantees of free exercise of religion and separation of church and state.” The court conceded that other courts have concluded that the first amendment may bar victims from suing churches or clergy on the basis of conduct “finding its basis in religious beliefs and practices.” This was not the case here, however, since “there is no indication that requiring increased supervision of [the priest] or the termination of his employment by the [diocese] based upon [his] conduct would violate any religious doctrine or inhibit any religious practice.” This result is not affected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which specifies that a law that “substantially burdens” the exercise of religion must further a compelling state interest to be legally permissible. The court concluded that there was evidence that the level of supervision exercised over the offending priest, or his retention by the diocese, was dictated by religious doctrine. It insisted that “religious entities have some duty to prevent injuries incurred by persons in their employ whom they have reason to believe will engage in injurious conduct.”

Application. The most important aspect of the court’s ruling was its conclusion that the diocese could not be legally responsible for the priests misconduct on the basis of negligent selection since it obtained a positive letter of reference when he was hired from a former employer. Further, the court concluded that when an employer receives a positive letter of reference on a prospective worker revealing no previous problems, it has no duty to investigate further. While not every court will agree with these conclusions, they can be cited in defending against a claim of negligent hiring. Finally, note that while the diocese could not be guilty of negligent hiring since it relied on the reference letter from the priests former bishop, the court concluded that the diocese could be liable for the priests misconduct on the basis of negligent retention and negligent supervision if it became aware of allegations of misconduct after he was hired but did nothing to respond to them. Kenneth R. v. Roman Catholic Diocese, 1997 WL 97185 (N.Y.A.D. 1997). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

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