Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers – Part 1

A Missouri court ruled that a church was not liable, on the basis of negligent supervision, for the sexual molestation of a child by a church’s youth pastor.

Church Law and Tax2003-03-01

Sexual misconduct by clergy, lay employees, and volunteers

Key point 10-09.2. Some courts have found churches not liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation on the ground that the church exercised reasonable care in the supervision of the victim and of its own programs and activities.

Negligence as a Basis for Liability

* A Missouri court ruled that a church was not liable, on the basis of negligent supervision, for the sexual molestation of a child by a church’s youth pastor despite the fact that church leaders were aware of a prior incident of inappropriate conduct by the youth pastor with the victim. Several church members found the youth pastor (Pastor Jeff) hiding with a young girl (Claire) under the church chancel. They were playing “hide-and-seek.” The next day, Pastor Jeff submitted a letter of resignation to the church’s senior pastor, in which he said:

I am having some problems of an extremely personal nature. I believe they are interfering with my job and my emotional state. I do not wish to discuss it with you right now, nothing against you, I just don’t know how to address it. I haven’t done anything wrong, but I find myself wanting to and that’s bad enough. I’ve never had this struggle before, but for some reason it’s come upon me and I must deal with it before I hurt someone. I can’t risk that. I think I already have caused some tension among the youth and a few parents. I desperately need to take some counseling or other treatment to solve these issues. Due to the nature of my troubles, I believe it’s time for me to take a break from my job here at the church. I love you and I love the people of the church. Because I love and care about you folks so much I have to go. This is not going to be easy for any of us, but it needs to happen. I’m scared, really scared. Please consider this my two weeks notice. I would like to leave quietly and without fanfare. I’ll call you next week to discuss how we can handle this peacefully.

The day after receiving the letter, the senior pastor met with Pastor Jeff along with the head of the church’s staff and parish relations committee (Fred). Pastor Jeff informed them that this was the second time that he had been found hiding under the chancel with Claire, but assured them that nothing sexually inappropriate had happened.

The senior pastor and Fred did not believe that Pastor Jeff posed a threat to the church’s youth, and so they did not accept his resignation. After discussion, Pastor Jeff decided to withdraw his resignation and to continue his service as youth minister. The senior pastor and Fred imposed several conditions on his continuing as youth minister, including an apology to Claire and others who were aware of the chancel incident, no more playing hide-and-seek, and undergoing professional counseling to be arranged by the senior pastor.

Pastor Jeff met with a counselor on one occasion, but refused to meet with him again because he feared that the counselor was going to report the hide-and-seek incident as child abuse. The senior pastor and Fred permitted Pastor Jeff to seek out a counselor of his own choosing, and Pastor Jeff repeatedly assured the senior pastor over the next several weeks that he was seeing a counselor. However, he never disclosed the counselor’s name or obtained any reports from the counselor.

In the meantime, on multiple occasions over the next few months, Pastor Jeff sexually assaulted Claire at the church and at a youth retreat center when he was supervising the youth on a weekend trip. The assaults continued until Pastor Jeff learned that Claire’s mother had met with the senior pastor to express concern about the number of lengthy telephone conversations her daughter was having with Pastor Jeff. Upon learning of this conversation, Pastor Jeff attempted suicide, was placed on administrative leave, and did not return to the church as youth minister.

Claire’s parents sued the church, claiming that it was responsible for Pastor’s Jeff’s misconduct on the basis of an intentional failure to supervise him. A jury ruled in favor of Claire’s parents and awarded $620,000 in damages. But, the trial judge overruled this verdict. The case was appealed.

A state appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the case against the church had to be dismissed. It relied on a 1997 Missouri Supreme Court decision in which the court ruled that finding a religious organization liable on the basis of a negligent failure to supervise its clergy would require a court to resolve questions of church doctrine, polity, and practice in violation of the organization’s first amendment freedom from undue governmental entanglement. Gibson v. Brewer, 952 S.W.2d 239 (Mo. 1997). The supreme court also concluded that the first amendment would not be violated if religious organizations were found liable for their intentional wrongs. The appeals court concluded that the church had not committed any intentional wrong. Rather, it was being sued as a result of its negligent supervision of Pastor Jeff.

Application. This case illustrates three points. First, youth workers who molest children often do so after one or more incidents in which they engaged in inappropriate conduct with minors. When church leaders are aware of such prior incidents, they are exposing children in their church to a significant risk of injury if they do nothing. Second, when church leaders are aware of prior incidents by a youth worker involving inappropriate behavior with children, the church must either dismiss the worker or impose suitable restrictions. In this case, the church imposed restrictions to protect against any misbehavior by Pastor Jeff. It required him to apologize to Claire and other members who were aware of the chancel incident; he was prohibited from playing hide-and-seek with minors; and, he was required to obtain professional counseling. However, these restrictions did not stop him from molesting Claire on multiple occasions. Third, the court ruled that the church was not liable for Pastor Jeff’s acts because it acted negligently, not intentionally. This conclusion is controversial, and would be rejected by the courts of some states. A.B. v. Liberty United Methodist Church, 2002 WL 31890054 (Mo. App. 2002).

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