Prior Acts of Sexual Misconduct

Evidence of prior “bad acts” is generally not admissible in court.

Church Law and Tax 1997-11-01

Sexual misconduct-by clergy and church workers

Key point. The fact that a person accused of child molestation engaged in sexual misconduct in the past may not be relevant in establishing the person’s guilt, unless the prior acts were substantially similar to the current allegations.

An Illinois court ruled that evidence regarding a priest’s prior acts of sexual misconduct were not relevant and therefore were not admissible in proving that the priest molested a young boy. A minor (the “victim”) sued a priest and a Roman Catholic Diocese on account of the priest’s alleged molestation of the victim while the victim was an elementary school student at a parochial school. The victim claimed that the priest molested him sexually and physically in the principal’s office during recess periods. A jury ruled in favor of the priest and diocese. The trial judge refused to allow the victim to present the following evidence to the jury: (1) an adult female claimed that the priest had made sexual advances toward her in the past; (2) another minor claimed that the priest had sexually assaulted him in parochial school bathrooms on three occasions; and (3) the priest allegedly molested a young girl 40 years earlier. The victim appealed the case on the ground that the trial judge had erred in refusing to allow this evidence to be presented to the jury. According to the victim, this evidence tended to prove his accusations against the priest.

A state appeals court disagreed. The court pointed out that evidence of prior “bad acts” is generally not admissible to prove that a person committed a particular offense-unless the prior bad acts “show a method of behavior that is so distinct that separate wrongful acts are recognized to be the handiwork of the same person.” This test was not met in this case. The court noted that the adult female’s claim of inappropriate sexual conduct by the priest did not share “distinct, common features” with the victim’s accusations, and that “the common features are not sufficient to indicate the handiwork of the same person.” Similarly, the court noted that the allegations by the other minor “differ from [the victim’s] allegations in several respects.” In particular, the court pointed out that the victim alleged that he had been both sexually and physically molested by the priest in a principal’s office at school during recess periods, while the other minor claimed that the same priest had only sexually assaulted him, and the acts occurred in school bathrooms. Finally, the court noted that evidence of the priest’s alleged molestation of a female student some 40 years earlier was not admissible because the incident differed in significant ways from the present case. The court noted that the earlier case involved a female who was much older than the victim at the time of the alleged acts, and no physical abuse had occurred.

Application. As a general rule, a church cannot be legally responsible for an employee’s acts of child molestation unless the employee is found guilty of the offense. Often, alleged victims attempt to demonstrate the guilt of the accused by introducing evidence of prior “bad acts.” This case demonstrates that victims may not be able to “prove their case” through evidence of prior bad acts unless those prior acts closely resemble the current allegations. This court went so far as to dismiss evidence of two other alleged incidents of child molestation by the same priest-on the ground that they were substantially different from the facts of the present case. This case will be a useful precedent to churches and denominational agencies that are sued as a result of the sexual misconduct of an employee or volunteer. Doe v. Lutz, 668 N.E.2d 564 (Ill. App. 1996). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

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