• Key point. A church is not liable for acts of child molestation by one of its youth workers off of church premises and unrelated to any church program or activity, even if it is aware of previous incidents of molestation involving the youth worker.
• Key point. A church is not liable for acts of child molestation by a youth worker on the basis of a failure by church leaders to comply with a state child abuse reporting law following a previous incident of molestation involving the same worker.
A Pennsylvania court ruled that (1) a charity cannot be sued when one of its volunteers molests a child who has no connection with the charity, even if it knew that the volunteer had a prior conviction for child molestation; and (2) the charity cannot be sued on the ground that it failed to report the volunteer’s acts of child molestation. A minister and his wife discovered in 1993 that their minor son had been repeatedly molested over a three—year period by an adult who served as a volunteer with the Big Brothers organization. The victim was not involved with the Big Brothers organization, and his relationship with the molester had no connection with Big Brothers. The victim’s parents later learned that the molester had been accused of molesting one of his “Little Brothers” a few years earlier. Upon learning of the previous incident, Big Brothers suspended the molester as a volunteer but did not report the allegations to the state agency that investigates child abuse. Big Brothers later determined that the allegations against the molester were not proven, and it reinstated the molester as a volunteer. A year later the molester was honored as “Big Brother of the Year.” The victim’s parents sued Big Brothers, claiming that it was responsible for their son’s injuries on two separate grounds: (1) it was negligent in failing to report the prior allegation of child abuse; and (2) it violated a state law requiring the reporting of suspected incidents of child abuse. A state appeals court rejected both theories of liability:
The parents argued that whenever a charity that works with children knows that one of its volunteers has molested a child, it owes a duty to future victims to report the molestation to the proper state agency so that the molester is apprehended and stopped from committing similar acts in the future. Let’s apply this argument in the context of a church. Assume that church leaders receive allegations that a youth worker has molested a child in the church, and they choose not to report the incident to the state. The molester later molests a child who lives in his neighborhood who has no connection with the church. Is the church responsible for this incident on the ground that it failed to report the previous allegation? In other words, did the church’s failure to report allow the molester to continue his unlawful behavior? The court said no. It noted that negligence is any act that imposes a “reasonably foreseeable” risk of harm to another. This definition was not met:
While we are deeply disturbed by the circumstances of [this case] we conclude that the [Big Brothers’] general duty of care does not encompass [the victim] or his family members. We will not extend the scope of such a duty to require [Big Brothers] to warn or protect all parents and children from persons like [the molester]. Given the tenuous connection between the parties and events in this case [Big Brothers] cannot be held responsible for the regrettable consequences of [the molester’s] actions; the law simply does not allow liability to be stretched [so far].
Failure to comply with the child abuse reporting law
The court ruled that Big Brothers was not liable for the victim’s injuries on the basis of its failure to report the previous allegation of molestation to the state. The Pennsylvania child abuse reporting statute requires “persons, who in the course of their employment … come into contact with children” to report child abuse to a designated state agency. The court observed:
We find that the [victim and his family] fall outside of the group of individuals that the statute is designed to protect. While the statute was clearly promulgated for the protection of children, it appears that the children the statute aims to protect must be in some way connected to the persons who, in the course of their employment, come into contact with the abused children. Again, [the victim] and his parents were in no way affiliated with [Big Brothers]. [The victim] was never a Little Brother with that organization.
Application. This case is important for the following reasons: (1) It illustrates that churches are not necessarily responsible for a youth worker’s acts of child molestation having no connection with a church program or activity. And, this is true even if church leaders were aware of a previous allegation of molestation involving the same worker. Church leaders simply have no duty to warn the public at large about every allegation of sexual misconduct involving church youth workers. (2) Had the victim been molested in connection with a Big Brothers activity, then Big Brothers may well have been liable on the basis of “negligent retention.” Keeping a youth volunteer despite credible evidence that he has molested a child in the past can make a charity liable on the basis of negligent retention for later incidents occurring in the course of its programs or activities. It does not matter that the previous incident was not connected with the charity’s activities or programs. In summary, a church may not be liable for a youth worker’s acts of child molestation involving children who are not associated with the church, even if church leaders are aware that the worker was involved in prior incidents of molestation. However, if the worker molests a child in a church activity or program, then the church may be liable on the basis of negligent retention, because it “retained” a person in a capacity involving contact with minors despite knowledge of one or more prior acts of child molestation. (3) Failure of church leaders to comply with a state child abuse reporting law when presented with allegations of child abuse by a youth worker will not necessarily make the church liable for future acts of molestation by the same worker. J.E.J. v. Tri—County Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Inc., 692 A.2d 582 (Pa. Super. 1997). [Failure to Report Child Abuse, Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability]
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