Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers – Part 1

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine ruled that a church could not be liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a pastor’s sexual assault.

Church Law and Tax 2003-09-01

Sexual Misconduct By Clergy and Church Workers – Part 1

Key point 10-10.2. Many courts have ruled that the first amendment prevents churches from being legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for the sexual misconduct of ministers.

* The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine ruled that a church could not be liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a pastor’s sexual assault of a female member of his congregation in the church parsonage. A female life insurance agent (Megan) was asked by the pastor of her church to meet with him in the church parsonage to discuss insurance coverage. During the visit, the pastor sexually assaulted her, and she later sued her church for “negligent supervision” claiming that it “knew or should have known” before she was sexually assaulted that the pastor had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with at least two other women in the same congregation, and that despite this knowledge, the church did not warn or otherwise protect her. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit against the church on the ground that resolving a negligent supervision claim against a church would violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. Megan appealed. A state appeals court noted that the tort of negligent supervision had not been recognized in Maine, and, even if it had been it could not be proven in this case. It noted that courts in other states have found employers liable for the intentional acts of their employees committed outside the scope of their employment if the employees are on the employer’s premises and the employer has the ability to control the employee and “should realize the necessity of doing so.” The facts in this case

involve contact between adults for the purpose of addressing a private, personal matter unrelated to the business or function of the church. The contact occurred at the residence of the individual who was allegedly negligently supervised. Recognizing a cause of action for negligent supervision, and extending it to such facts, would go far beyond the scope of any traditional negligent supervision action. Such an interpretation would suggest that employers should become the guarantors of their employee’s good conduct in private matters merely because the initial contact with the employee occurred in the regular course of business. We decline to adopt such an extension of the law. The fact that this misconduct is alleged to have occurred at an employer-owned residence makes no difference in this analysis. Where an employer does provide a residence for employees, it is very different from the employer’s premises …. The employee retains rights of privacy and quiet enjoyment in the residence that are not subject to close supervision or domination by the employer. Megan does not allege that the pastor was engaged in the church’s business, that she was attending any type of religious event with him, or that her presence at his home pertained to church-related matters. On these facts, we decline Megan’s invitation to adopt an expansive view of the tort of negligent supervision.

Application. This case will be useful to any church that is sued on the basis of negligent supervision for the wrongful acts of pastors occurring in a church parsonage. As the court noted, church employees retain a right of privacy in their home, and this includes a pastor living in a church parsonage. As a result, pastors and lay employees are not subject to “close supervision or domination by the employer” in their home. Napieralski v. Unity Church, 802 A.2d 391 (Me. 2002).

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