• Key pointNegligence as a Basis for Liability Some courts have found churches liable on the basis of negligent selection for the molestation of a minor by a church worker if the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the selection of the worker.
• Key point.Negligence as a Basis for Liability Some courts have found churches liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation on the ground that the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the victim or of its own programs and activities.
A Florida court ruled that the first amendment religion clauses did not prevent it from resolving a lawsuit claiming that a church and denominational agency were legally responsible on the basis of negligent hiring and supervision for a minister’s acts of child molestation. A priest sexually molested two minor girls who worked at the church in exchange for free tuition at a church school. The victims sued the church and archdiocese on the basis of negligent hiring and supervision of the priest. The church defendants claimed that the lawsuit was barred by the first amendment, since it would require a court to determine the adequacy of the church defendants’ procedures for selecting and supervising clergy. A trial court agreed, and the victims appealed. A state appeals court ruled in favor of the victims. It noted that “most of the courts which have rejected these types of claims have done so based on the belief that to determine liability they would be required to interpret church doctrine.” On the other hand, those courts that have accepted these claims “see their role as simply applying neutral principles of law to nonreligious conduct.” The court concluded, “After carefully reviewing the case law, and taking into consideration the particular factual allegations herein, we find the latter cases to be more persuasive. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that they were both employees and parishioners of the defendant church, that they were sexually assaulted and battered by [the priest] while working at the defendant church, and that, despite knowing that [the priest] had committed several sexual assaults and batteries, he was retained by the defendants as a priest and given the task of supervising the plaintiffs. The issue to be determined by the court, therefore, is whether the defendants had reason to know of [the priest’s] misconduct and did nothing to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm from being inflicted upon the plaintiffs. This determination is one governed by tort law and does not require inquiry into the religious doctrines and practices of the Catholic church.”
Application. As the court noted, several other courts (including some in Florida) have reached the opposite conclusion and have declined to resolve lawsuits brought against church defendants on the basis of the negligent hiring or supervision of clergy. Doe v. Malicki, 771 So.2d 545 (Fla. App. 2000).
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