A Connecticut court ruled that the first amendment did not prevent a Catholic diocese from being sued on the basis of negligent supervision by nine adults who claimed they were molested by the same priest when they were minors. The plaintiffs alleged that the diocese had been aware of the priest’s sexual misconduct, but failed to adequately supervise him. As a result, they asserted that the diocese was legally responsible for the priest’s acts on the basis of negligent supervision. The court, in concluding that the first amendment did not prevent it from resolving this claim, observed:
Several courts have determined … that a claim of … negligence [against a church or diocese] does not require any inquiry into religious doctrine or practice. Instead, review only requires the court to determine if the church defendants knew of [the minister’s] inappropriate conduct, yet failed to protect third parties from him. The court is simply applying secular standards to secular conduct which is permissible under first amendment standards …. The court’s determination of an action against the [diocese] based upon its alleged negligent supervision of [the priest] would not prejudice or impose upon any of the religious tenets or practices of Catholicism. Rather, such a determination would involve an examination of the [diocese’s] possible role in allowing one of its employees to engage in conduct which [it] as well as society in general expressly prohibit ….
The court concluded that in determining whether or not the diocese had been negligent in supervising the priest, it could apply “neutral principles of law” (1) to determine whether the diocese failed to act when it knew or should have known that the priest was engaging in inappropriate behavior, and (2) to address conduct “that is expressly prohibited by the laws of this state.” The court stressed that there was no evidence that by taking preventive action in the face of alleged complaints concerning the misconduct of a priest the diocese would have violated any “doctrine, practice, or law” of the Roman Catholic Church. In the absence of such a conflict, subjecting the diocese to potential legal liability did not violate their rights under the first amendment. The court also quoted from a Supreme Court decision: “We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate.” Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). The court concluded that the first amendment “does not provide an absolute freedom to act with regard to religious beliefs …. Instead, that freedom can be regulated for the protection of society …. The protection of society requires that religious organizations be held accountable for injuries they cause to third persons. To hold otherwise would impermissibly place a religious leader in a preferred position in our society.”
The court noted that there was conflicting evidence whether the diocese was aware of the priest’s misconduct, and failed to act. It ordered the case to proceed to trial. The court acknowledged that several other courts had concluded that the first amendment prohibits the civil courts from resolving negligent supervision claims involving churches or denominational agencies, but it chose to reject those cases.
Application. This case illustrates the risk that churches and denominational agencies assume when they ignore evidence that a minister or lay worker is engaging in inappropriate conduct. Such neglect can expose the church or agency to liability, on the basis of negligent supervision or retention, for additional acts of misconduct. As a result, church and denominational leaders should take seriously any allegation of wrongdoing; investigate the matter promptly; consult with an attorney and insurance agent; and respond in a responsible and appropriate way based on the weight and nature of the evidence. Rosado v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocese,716 A.2d 967 (Conn. Super. 1998). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]
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