Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers – Part 1

A New York court ruled that a church and denominational agency were not liable for a pastor’s acts of child molestation.

Church Law and Tax2003-05-01

Sexual Misconduct By Clergy and Church Workers

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.

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 New York court ruled that a church and denominational agency were not liable for a pastor’s acts of child molestation because it had no knowledge of any previous similar acts. An alleged victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest sued his church and archdiocese. The trial court denied the church defendants’ request to dismiss the case, and they appealed. A state appeals court ruled that the case should have been dismissed. First, it noted that the church defendants could not be liable on the basis of “respondeat superior.” Under the respondeat superior doctrine, employers generally are liable for the acts of their employees committed within the scope of their employment. The court concluded that the priest’s acts of sexual misconduct were not within the scope of his employment, and therefore the church defendants were not liable on this basis. Second, the court ruled that the church defendants were not liable on the basis of negligence since they “established as a matter of law that they lacked notice of [the priest’s] propensity for the type of behavior causing the victim’s harm. Thus, the church defendants cannot be held liable for their alleged negligent hiring, training, supervision or retention of [the priest].” Paul J.H. v. Lum, 736 N.Y.S.2d 561 (N.Y. App. 2002).

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