Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that a church can be liable for the sexual misconduct of an employee on the basis of “respondeat superior.”

Key point 10-02.3. Churches can be legally responsible on the basis of the respondeat superior doctrine for the actions of their employees only if those actions are committed within the course of employment and further the mission and functions of the church. Intentional and self-serving acts of church employees often will not satisfy this standard.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that a church can be liable for the sexual misconduct of an employee on the basis of "respondeat superior," so long as the misconduct was a direct outgrowth of actions by the employee that were within the scope of his or her employment.

An adult male (the "victim") alleged that from 1970 through 1972, when he was an adolescent, the priest served as youth pastor, friend, and confessor to the victim and his family. The victim's family became close to the priest, who was a frequent guest in their home. Over time, the priest gained the trust and confidence of the victim's family, and obtained permission to spend substantial periods of time alone with the victim. The priest eventually used this position of trust to commit a series of sexual assaults on the victim.

The victim sued the priest and his archdiocese, claiming that the archdiocese was responsible for the priest's acts on the basis of respondeat superior (a legal doctrine that imposes liability on an employer for the acts of its employees in the course of their employment). The archdiocese claimed that all of the victim's claims were brought after the statute of limitations had expired, and therefore the lawsuit had to be dismissed. It also argued that even if the statute of limitations did not bar the victim's claims, it could not be liable for the priest's acts on the basis of respondeat superior since the priest was not acting within the scope of his employment when he molested the victim.

The victim insisted that the priest was an employee of the archdiocese and that the abuse was committed in connection with his employment as youth pastor and priest. A trial court rejected the victim's claims, and dismissed the lawsuit. The victim appealed.

The state supreme court noted that under the doctrine of respondeat superior, "an employer is liable for an employee's torts, including intentional torts, if the employee was acting within the scope of employment." In order for an employee's acts to be within the scope of employment, the following factors must be present: (1) the conduct occurred within the time and space limits authorized by the employment; (2) the employee was motivated, at least partially, by a purpose to serve the employer; and (3) the act must have been of a kind that the employee was hired to perform.

The court conceded that the priest's alleged sexual assaults on the victim clearly were outside the scope of his employment, but it concluded that the archdiocese could still be liable on the basis of respondeat superior if "acts that were within [the priest's] scope of employment resulted in the acts which led to injury to plaintiff." The court noted that it would be extraordinary to find an act of intentional misconduct, such as sexual molestation, to be within the scope of an employee's employment. But, it insisted that this is not necessary. Rather, the question is whether the priest was performing any acts that were within the scope of his employment that ultimately caused the victim's injuries. The court concluded that this test was met:

The complaint alleges that [the priest] used his position as youth pastor, spiritual guide, confessor, and priest to [the victim] and his family to gain their trust and confidence, and thereby to gain the permission of [the victim's] family to spend large periods of time alone with [him]. By virtue of that relationship, [the priest] gained the opportunity to be alone with [the victim], to touch him physically, and then to assault him sexually. The complaint further alleges that those activities were committed in connection with [the priest's] employment as youth pastor and priest, that they were committed within the time and space limitations of [his] employment, that they were committed out of a desire, at least partially and initially, to fulfill [his] employment duties as youth pastor and priest, and that they generally were of a kind and nature that he was required to perform as youth pastor and priest.

The court conceded that a jury might conclude that all the priest's activities preceding the sexual abuse were motivated solely to further his own interests, not those of the archdiocese. On the other hand, it could just as easily conclude that the sexual assaults "were the culmination of a progressive series of actions that began with and continued to involve [the priest's] performance of the ordinary and authorized duties of a priest." In the latter case, a jury might also infer that, "in cultivating a relationship with victim and his family, the priest, at least initially, was motivated by a desire to fulfill his priestly duties and that, over time, his motives became mixed."

The archdiocese argued that if an employer can be liable for an employee's sexual assaults simply because it provided the employee with an "opportunity" to commit the assaults, then any employer that provides their employees with an opportunity to be alone with third parties can be held liable for the intentional torts of those employees. The court disagreed, noting that an employment relationship will not in itself support employer liability. Rather, the wrongful acts of an employee must be "a direct outgrowth" of specific acts that are within the scope of the employee's employment. This test was met in this case, because of the priest's extensive efforts to cultivate a relationship with the victim and his family as a result of the performance of his pastoral duties.

Application. This case is an unfortunate departure from the vast majority of cases that have concluded that churches and denominational agencies cannot be liable for the wrongful conduct of employees on the basis of respondeat superior since such conduct cannot be within the scope of the wrongdoer's employment. This case opens the door to greater liability on the part of churches and denominational agencies in Oregon, and in any other state that follows this ruling. Respondeat superior is a far more undesirable basis of liability than negligent selection, negligent retention, or negligent supervision, since it imposes liability "automatically" on an employer without any proof of negligence. All that is required is proof that an employee injured someone while acting within the scope of his employment. This court conceded acts of sexual misconduct are not within the scope of employment, but it concluded that this does not end the analysis. Rather, an employer can be liable if an act of sexual misconduct is a "direct outgrowth" of other acts that are within the scope of employment. Fearing v. Bucher, 977 P.2d 1163 (Ore. 1999).

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