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

A Florida court ruled that churches and denominational agencies that dismiss clergy for sexual misconduct, and that later provide them with financial assistance to enable them to pursue studies in another profession, are not liable for injuries they cause in the course of their new profession.

Church Law and Tax1999-11-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Staff

Key point. A church that dismisses an employee for sexual misconduct, and that offers the former employee financial assistance to pursue another profession, is not necessarily liable for future acts of sexual misconduct by the former employee in the course of his or her new profession.

Key point. A church may be legally responsible for providing a positive and unqualified reference on a former worker if it knows that the worker presents a risk of harm and fails to disclose this information.

1. A Florida court ruled that churches and denominational agencies that dismiss clergy for sexual misconduct, and that later provide them with financial assistance to enable them to pursue studies in another profession, are not liable for injuries they cause in the course of their new profession. The court also addressed the important question of legal liability for providing misleading references. Three young men (the “plaintiffs”) were sexually abused by a former Catholic priest long after he left the church and while he was a counselor with a secular counseling center. The plaintiffs sued the diocese and individual priests on the theory that they were liable because when the offending priest, a known pedophile, was removed from the priesthood, they provided financial assistance in order for him to complete a degree in counseling. Several years after this financial assistance and after the former priest obtained his degree and became licensed by the state as a counselor, he abused these plaintiffs. It was plaintiffs’ contention that “but for” this financial assistance, the priest would not have received a degree, would not have become a counselor, would not have been licensed by the state, would not have become employed by the secular counseling center, and would not have abused these plaintiffs.

The court concluded,

We are not willing to hold that one who makes it possible for a criminal, even a pedophile, to receive a college education is thereafter liable when years later, even if using the degree thus obtained, such person commits a criminal act. There are many jobs that may be available to one with a counseling degree that will not involve contact with children. The diocese could not foresee that [the former priest] would be licensed as a counselor by the state and hired by [the secular counseling center] to counsel young people without first checking [his] background with the diocese. There is no allegation that the diocese made any effort to conceal [the former priest’s] background or to hide the reason for his removal as an active priest.

The plaintiffs also sued a psychologist who treated the priest for a number of years because he, after voluntarily assuming the duty of recommending the priest for licensure, failed to report that he was a pedophile. The court noted that the psychologist responded to a questionnaire from the Florida Department of Professional Regulation. He was advised that his failure to respond might result in the former priest’s being denied licensure as a counselor. He responded as a psychologist and acknowledged a professional relationship with the former priest. He then deceived the Department concerning the former priest’s background and, because of such deceit, the former priest was licensed and permitted to practice counseling with youth. The court permitted the plaintiffs to sue the psychologist for injuries they sustained because of the actions of the former priest.

Application. This case illustrates two important points. First, churches and denominational agencies that provide financial assistance to dismissed ministers to enable them to pursue a new profession are not necessarily legally responsible for injuries caused by such a minister in the course of his or her new profession. Second, the case illustrates the potential legal liability that is associated with giving false references. In this case, the former priest was licensed as a counselor in part because of the positive reference provided by a psychologist who was aware of the priest’s prior acts of child molestation. Church leaders who have knowledge that a former worker presents a risk of harm to others are potentially liable if they provide a positive and unqualified reference. Smith v. Dorsey, 725 So.2d 1196 (Fla. App. 1998). [Termination]

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