Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Statute of limitations can prevent cases from going to court.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

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

Key point. In some states, minors who are molested by clergy or church workers will be prevented from suing their church if they fail to sue before the “statute of limitations” expires (note, however, that the statute of limitations generally does not begin to “run” until the minor reaches legal age).

A Wisconsin appeals court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented a woman from suing a Catholic archdiocese for the alleged acts of molestation by a priest nearly 40 years before. The woman claimed that the priest entered into a sexual relationship with her in the late 1950s when she was a high school student, and that as a result of the priest’s behavior she “has suffered and continues to suffer from severe emotional distress, causing and contributing to the break—up of her marriage, separation from her children, loss of jobs and other difficulties.” The woman’s lawsuit claimed that the archdiocese was responsible for her injuries on the basis of the following factors:

The archdiocese had a duty to admit only qualified candidates into the priesthood, properly test and screen candidates for the priesthood and priests to ascertain if such persons had an illness or sexual inclination which caused a priest to be sexually attracted to teenage girls/young women … prior to placing a priest in to the community, to make appropriate placements of priest considering all relevant factors, supervise the priests which the archdiocese placed into the community, to counsel and guide priests in dealing with issues of celibacy and human sexuality and to supervise the operation of the various parishes located within the archdiocese, including but not limited to all parishes at which [the priest] served ….

The archdiocese knew or should have known that [the priest] had a sexual problem prior to 1959 and acted willfully, intentionally and in wanton and reckless disregard of the rights and safety of plaintiff by failing to remove [him] from serving as a priest.

A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the statute of limitations. A state appeals court reversed this ruling and ordered the case to proceed to trial. The state supreme court reversed this ruling and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The court began its opinion by noting that the applicable statute of limitations in this case was 3 years. It ruled that the woman filed her lawsuit after this period of time expired, even if the so—called “discovery rule” were applied. Under the discovery rule, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the victim discovers that his or her injuries were caused by the misconduct of a particular person or organization. The woman in this case argued that she had “suppressed and been unable to perceive the existence, nature or cause of her psychological and emotional injuries” until she sought the assistance of a professional counselor in 1992. Therefore, she argued that her lawsuit (filed in November of 1992) was not barred by the statute of limitations. The supreme court concluded that the discovery rule did not help the woman in this case, since the woman by her own admission knew the identity of the priest and was aware of the conduct of the priest. The woman claimed that despite her knowledge of these facts she was unable to “connect” her knowledge with her emotional harm, and that it wasn’t until 1992 that she connected her psychological and emotional difficulties to the priest’s behavior. The court rejected this view of the discovery rule, and concluded that under this rule the statute of limitations begins to run when a person “has sufficient evidence that a wrong has indeed been committed by an identified person.”

The court further observed:

Extending the discovery rule to this case would cause unfairness to a defendant who is forced to attempt to defend a suit for emotional and psychological injuries in which the alleged conduct took place over [40] years ago and increase the potential for fraud. Any time a claim is raised many years after the injury occurred, the potential for fraud is exacerbated.

But here the alleged damages are all “emotional” and “psychological,” with the plaintiff’s experts claiming that damage exists and was caused by the defendant, and the defendant left in the position of attempting to prove either that the plaintiff is not “emotionally damaged” or that he is not the cause of that damage. “While some courts may have blind faith in all phases of psychiatry, this court does not.” “Nor are we convinced that even careful cross—examination in this esoteric and largely unproved field is likely to reveal the truth ….” When one adds to this that “this court has frequently been dismayed by the examination of trial court records which showed a marked propensity of those who purport to have psychiatric expertise to tailor their testimony to the particular client whom they represent,” fraud becomes a distinct possibility.

Finally, the court ruled that the woman’s claim against the archdiocese would not have been cognizable by the civil courts even if it had not been barred by the statute of limitations. The court made the following observations:

[T]he question of whether a religious governing body is liable for negligence in hiring, retaining, training or supervising their [sic] “employees” (clergymen) who commit acts which are outside the scope of their employment is a matter of great public importance and has been fully briefed by the parties.

To establish a claim for negligent hiring or retention [the woman] would have to establish that the archdiocese was negligent in hiring or retaining [the priest] because he was incompetent or otherwise unfit. But, we conclude that the first amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the courts of this state from determining what makes one competent to serve as a Catholic priest since such a determination would require interpretation of church canons and internal church policies and practices. Therefore [the suit] against the archdiocese is not capable of enforcement by the courts.

Examining the ministerial selection policy, which is “infused with the religious tenets of the particular sect,” entangles the court in qualitative evaluation of religious norms. Negligence requires the court to create a “reasonable bishop” norm. Beliefs in penance, admonition and reconciliation as a sacramental response to sin may be the point of attack by a challenger who wants a court to probe the tort law reasonableness of the church’s mercy toward the offender …. The tort of negligent selection of unsuitable teachers has been recognized in civil courts. If negligent selection of a potential pedophile for the religious office of priest, minister or rabbi is a tort as to future child victims, will civil courts also hear Title VII challenges by the non—selected seminarian against the theological seminary that declines to ordain a plaintiff into ministry because of his psychological profile? How far shall the courts’ qualitative entanglement with religious selectivity extend?

Although state inquiry into the training and supervision of clergy is a closer issue than inquiry into hiring and retention practices because under some limited circumstances such questions might be able to be decided without determining questions of church law and policies, it is nonetheless prohibited by the first amendment under most if not all circumstances. As one court stated in refusing to allow a claim for negligent supervision:

[A]ny inquiry into the policies and practices of the church defendants in hiring or supervising their clergy raises the same kinds of first amendment problems of entanglement discussed above, which might involve the court in making sensitive judgments about the propriety of the church defendants’ supervision in light of their religious beliefs …. The traditional denominations each have their own intricate principles of governance, as to which the state has no right of visitation. Church governance is founded in scripture, modified by reformers over almost two millennia …. It would therefore also be inappropriate and unconstitutional for this court to determine after the fact that the ecclesiastical authorities negligently supervised or retained the defendant [priest]. Any award of damages would have a chilling effect leading indirectly to state control over the future conduct of affairs of a religious denomination, a result violative of the text and history of the establishment clause. [Quoting from Schmidt v. Bishop, 779 F.Supp. 321 (S.D.N.Y. 1991).]

In conclusion … [we] hold that, assuming they exist at all, the tort of negligent hiring and retention may not be maintained against a religious governing body due to concerns of excessive entanglement, and that the tort of negligent training or supervision cannot be successfully asserted in this case because it would require an inquiry into church laws, practices and policies. Pritzlaff v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 533 N.W.2d 780 (Wis. 1995). [ Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

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