Recent Developments in Florida Regarding Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

A Florida court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a woman’s lawsuit claiming that she had been the victim of a priest’s sexual misconduct.

Church Law and Tax1999-03-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point. Several courts have concluded that churches cannot be legally responsible for a minister’s sexual misconduct, since allowing them to be sued for failing to exercise sufficient care in the selection, training, or supervision of clergy would violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom.

Key point. Several courts have concluded that churches cannot be legally responsible on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for a minister’s sexual misconduct, since recognizing such a theory of liability would require a civil court to consider church doctrine and polity.

A Florida court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a woman’s lawsuit claiming that she had been the victim of a priest’s sexual misconduct. A woman sought out a priest for marital counseling, and alleged that the priest engaged in sexual contacts with her. The woman sued her church and diocese, claiming that they were aware of prior incidents involving sexual misconduct during counseling by the same priest. Despite this knowledge, nothing was done to address the problem. She claimed that the priest breached a fiduciary duty by becoming romantically involved with her; that the church and diocese had a fiduciary relationship with her (because she reported the priest’s misconduct to them) that was breached; and, that the church and diocese engaged in negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of the priest. The church and diocese asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit against them on the ground that a resolution of the woman’s claims would result in an “excessive entanglement” of the court with religious beliefs in violation of the first amendment. The court agreed with the church and diocese, and dismissed the lawsuit against them. The woman appealed. The appeals court’s resolution of the woman’s claims is addressed below.

Negligent Hiring, Supervision, Retention

The court began its opinion by noting that the first amendment prohibits any governmental practice (including judicial resolution of internal church disputes) that would lead to an “excessive entanglement” between church and state. The court noted that excessive entanglement occurs “when the courts begin to review and interpret a church’s constitution, laws, and regulations. The first amendment prohibits courts from resolving doctrinal disputes or determining whether a religious organization acted in accordance with its canons and bylaws.” The court reviewed several court decisions from other jurisdictions, and concluded that the resolution of a negligent hiring, supervision, or retention claim against a church or diocese would amount to an excessive entanglement in violation of the first amendment:

Our examination of case law presenting both sides of this question leads us to conclude the reasoning of those courts holding the first amendment bars a claim for negligent hiring, retention, and supervision is the more compelling. In a church defendant’s determination to hire or retain a minister, or in its capacity as supervisor of that minister, a church defendant’s conduct is guided by religious doctrine and/or practice. Thus, a court’s determination regarding whether the church defendant’s conduct was “reasonable” would necessarily entangle the court in issues of the church’s religious law, practices, and policies. “Hiring” in a traditional sense does not occur in some religions, where a person is ordained into a particular position in the church, and assigned to one parish or another. A court faced with the task of determining a claim of negligent hiring, retention, and supervision would measure the church defendants’ conduct against that of a reasonable employer; a proscribed comparison.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty

The court concluded that resolving the woman’s breach of fiduciary duty claims (against the priest, church, and diocese) would constitute excessive entanglement between church and state in violation of the first amendment:

Taking the allegations of [her] complaint as true, [she] alleged the church defendants owed her a fiduciary duty, yet definition of that duty necessarily involves the secular court in church practices, doctrines, and belief. To establish a breach of the fiduciary duty allegedly owed to [her] by the church defendants, [she] would need to establish the church remained inactive in the face of her allegations against [the priest]. However, the church’s policies undoubtedly differ from the rules of another employer, and may require the nonsecular employer to respond differently when faced with such allegations. When a secular court interprets church law, policies, and practices it becomes excessively entangled in religion. We align ourselves with those courts finding a first amendment bar to a breach of fiduciary duty claim as against church defendants, concluding resolution of such a claim would necessarily require the secular court to review and interpret church law, policies, and practices.

Emotional Distress

The court dismissed the woman’s emotional distress claim against the church and diocese, for two reasons. First, resolution of such a claim would violate the first amendment, and second, the woman’s lawsuit failed to recite facts that would support liability on such a basis. A claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress may be asserted where conduct has been “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” The court noted simply that the allegations of the woman’s lawsuit “fall short of satisfying this test.”

Application. This case will be helpful to any church or denominational agency that is sued on the basis of negligence or breach of a fiduciary duty because of a minister’s sexual misconduct. The court concluded that the first amendment bars the civil courts from holding churches liable on these grounds for a minister’s misconduct. Doe v. Evans, 1998 WL 567904 (Fla. App. 1998). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

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