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.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability
* A Florida court ruled that a church was not liable, on the basis of respondeat superior or negligent supervision, for the rape of a 16-year-old girl by the senior pastor of her church. A young woman sued her former pastor and church alleging that the pastor sexually assaulted her when she was a minor. The woman claimed that the church was responsible for the pastor’s acts on the basis of negligent supervision. The victim was 16 when the sexual assaults occurred. Her parents were very protective of her and forbade her to be alone with boys. The victim spent most of her time attending services and volunteering at the church. The victim’s family and the pastor’s family became friends and would see each other socially. When she was 16, the victim received gifts of perfume and flowers with cards signed by a "secret admirer." She did not know the identity of the secret admirer, although she suspected one of the boys from the church. The victim and her parents attempted to find out the source of the gifts by inviting boys out to eat and comparing their handwriting to the one on the cards. None of the handwriting samples matched, however. Ultimately, the pastor’s wife informed the victim and her mother that the secret admirer was her husband, the pastor.
Before the sexual assaults took place, the pastor visited the victim’s residence twice when she had been left home alone. Her parents happened to see him on these occasions but did not suspect him of any wrongdoing. On another occasion, the pastor visited the victim at her school, explaining his presence by stating that he was considering enrolling his daughters there. The victim told her mother about the pastor’s visit, but did not advise anyone from the church.
A short while later, the pastor called the victim and invited her to lunch to discuss her parents’ marital problems. The victim accepted, and the pastor picked her up and drove her to a Marriott Hotel where he led her to a room he had rented, and told her not to worry because she would finally be "cured." He then proceeded to sexually assault her. The victim had informed the pastor previously that she suffered from fainting spells. The pastor told her that God had revealed to him that these spells were caused by her having been sexually molested as a young child, and that she needed to be "cured." The pastor admitted that he had had an adulterous affair in Venezuela before becoming a minister.
A jury found the church liable on the basis of negligent supervision for the pastor’s acts, and the church appealed. A state appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision, and dismissed the lawsuit.
The court concluded that the church could not be liable for the pastor’s acts on the basis of the legal doctrine of respondeat superior. This doctrine imputes liability to employers for the negligent acts of their employees committed in the course of their employment. The court observed,
The sexual assault did not occur on church property, and [there is no evidence] that the pastor’s criminal act … constituted the kind of conduct he was employed to perform, or that he was in any way motivated by his desire to serve the church …. On the contrary, the record establishes that the pastor’s purpose in arranging the meeting that day was to satisfy his personal interests, not to further the church’s objectives. Regardless of the stated reason for the meeting … it is undisputed that no counseling occurred on the day of the crime. While the pastor may have had access to the victim because of his position as the church pastor … he was not engaging in authorized acts or serving the interests of the church during the time he tried to seduce her or on the day he raped her. The sexual assault was an independent, self-serving act … that he knew was wrong to commit and that the church would surely have tried to prevent had it known of his plans.
The court noted that for the church to be liable for negligent supervision, "it must have had constructive or actual notice that [the pastor] was unfit to work as a pastor at the church." The victim claimed that the church was negligent in failing to supervise the pastor, when it knew or should have known of the problem of sexual abuse by religious leaders generally and of their own pastor’s prior sexual misconduct. She asserted that the church failed to discover the pastor’s extramarital affair with a consenting adult several years earlier in Venezuela, which, if known, might have led the church to take reasonable measures to prevent the risk of harm that he posed to its members.
The court disagreed that the church had been guilty of negligent supervision. It concluded,
There was insufficient evidence at trial to show that the church had reasonable notice that sexual abuse by religious leaders was a prevalent problem, such that it should have supervised its staff more closely to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm. As to the church’s knowledge of the pastor’s background, the evidence showed that the church was not empowered to investigate him or any other potential applicant. A [denominational agency] carried that burden. Their investigation of the pastor did not reveal his extra-marital affair with a consenting adult.
The court also rejected the victim’s argument that since the pastor was an officer of the church, his knowledge of his own criminal conduct should have been imputed to the church. The court ruled that criminal acts committed outside the scope of employment cannot be imputed to one’s employer, and that "to say otherwise would, in effect, turn the employer into the insurer of its employees’ independent, illegal actions." Iglesia Cristiana La Caa Del Senor, Inc. v. L.M., 783 So.2d 353 (Fla. App. 2001).
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