Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers – Part 1

The Alabama Supreme court ruled that an employer cannot be liable for the sexual misconduct of an employee unless it had prior knowledge of similar incidents.

Church Law and Tax2001-01-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy, Lay Employees and Volunteers

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

* The Alabama Supreme court ruled that an employer cannot be liable for the sexual misconduct of an employee unless it had prior knowledge of similar incidents. Knowledge of prior threats of harm, or dissimilar crimes, is not enough to impose liability. While this case involved a hospital, the court’s conclusions are of direct relevance to other charities, including churches. A married couple sued a hospital, and a male nurse employed by the hospital, for damages their 6-year-old daughter suffered as a result of having been sexually molested by the nurse while a patient at the hospital. The parents claimed that the hospital was legally responsible for the nurse’s acts on the basis of negligent supervision. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the state supreme court affirmed this ruling. The court noted that the nurse’s personnel file documented a history of problems at work. However, almost all of these problems involved disagreements with coworkers. The file also demonstrated that he was a competent nurse dedicated to superior patient care. Days before the molestation incident, the nurse had a disagreement with an elderly patient. Allegedly, he told her that she would get her medicine "when he saw fit." When he learned that the patient reported the incident, he allegedly returned to her room and threatened her. During the hospital’s investigation of that incident, the nurse allegedly molested the 6-year-old child. The parents insisted that this "history" made the nurse’s sexual molestation of their daughter foreseeable and, therefore, the hospital should be found liable for his actions on the basis of negligent supervision. The supreme court noted that for the hospital to be found liable for the nurse’s criminal assault, the parents had to prove "(1) that the particular criminal conduct was foreseeable; (2) that the [hospital] possessed specialized knowledge of the criminal activity; and (3) that the criminal conduct was a probability." The court explained that "in any case in which a defendant faces liability for the criminal actions of a third party, the focus is on whether the criminal activity was foreseeable." Further, "the particular criminal activity, not just any criminal activity, must be foreseeable." The court concluded that nothing in the nurse’s history indicated that he would molest a child, and therefore the hospital could not be liable for his acts because they were not foreseeable. The court concluded,

The record clearly indicates that [the nurse] had a history of mental illness (manic depression) and that he had functioned for years as a nurse because of the hospital’s willingness to allow him to work while he was receiving treatment. The evidence indicates that although he generally did a good job, he had a history of emotional outbursts with fellow employees and with at least one patient. No evidence indicates that he had ever engaged in sexual misconduct before the incident [in this case].

Did hospital administrators exercise sound judgment in allowing the nurse to work at the hospital in direct contact with patients? The answer to that question is debatable. However, the evidence, even viewed in the light most favorable to [the parents] falls woefully short of demonstrating that [the nurse’s] supervisors should have foreseen that he would probably sexually molest a child in the hospital’s care.

Application. This case will be a very helpful precedent for churches to cite when they are sued as a result of the sexual assaults of children committed by employees or volunteers. The court concluded that there can be no liability unless the particular criminal act was foreseeable by the offender’s employer. This is a strict standard that is not met by the employer’s knowledge that the offender had a criminal history involving other kinds of crimes. In this case, the court concluded that the hospital’s knowledge that the nurse had verbally threatened to harm an adult patient "fell woefully short" of demonstrating that his sexual molestation of a child was foreseeable. The fact that this case is a ruling by a state supreme court will increase its value as a precedent in other states. Ex parte South Baldwin Regional Medical Center v. McFadden, 785 So.2d 368 (Ala. 2001).

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