Sexual Misconduct by Clergy, Lay Employees, and Volunteers

A federal court in Connecticut ruled that a woman who had been molested by a priest when she was a minor could sue her church.

Church Law and Tax2005-01-01

Sexual misconduct by clergy, church employees and volunteer 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.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability

Key point 10-13.1. A few courts have found churches and denominational agencies liable on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the sexual misconduct of a minister. In some cases, the church or agency is found to be vicariously liable for the minister’s breach of a fiduciary duty, but in others the church or agency is found to have breached a fiduciary duty that it had with the victim.

* A federal court in Connecticut ruled that a woman who had been molested by a priest when she was a minor could sue her church and other church agencies on the basis of respondeat superior and a breach of fiduciary duty. An adult female (Jane) sued a priest, church, and church agencies alleging that the priest sexually molested her when she was a teenager. She claimed that the church defendants were responsible for the priest’s acts on the basis of respondeat superior and breach of a fiduciary duty.

respondeat superior

In order for an employer to be liable for the intentional acts of its employee on the basis of the respondeat superior doctrine, the employee must have been acting “in furtherance of the employer’s business.”

The court conceded that “in many cases of alleged sexual abuse by priests, the courts have held that respondeat superior is not applicable to hold a church or diocese liable, because such acts by the priests are not in furtherance of the church’s business. ” However, it concluded that “the priest allegedly assaulted plaintiff during counseling sessions in attempt to bring her closer to the church and her religious faith, thereby increasing financial donations to the church and volunteer time spent by plaintiff and her family in furtherance of the church’s business. Accordingly, the court finds that the acts as alleged, however misguided, are not so clearly outside the priest’s scope of employment that the question is one of law. Therefore, the court denies the church defendants’ motions to dismiss this count.”

fiduciary duty

The court defined a fiduciary relationship as one “characterized by a unique degree of trust and confidence between the parties, one of whom has a superior knowledge, skill or expertise and is under a duty to represent the interests of the other.” In concluding that such a relationship existed between the victim and church defendants, the court observed, “Plaintiff was a member of the church or diocesan sponsored activities … and the church choir, and consulted with the priest for spiritual and religious counseling, as encouraged by defendants. Additionally, the priest attended dinners at the plaintiff’s family home and vacationed with them. Furthermore, plaintiff alleges that defendants knew or should have known that the priest engaged in a sexual relationship with another woman prior to his [current] assignment.”

Application. This case is important because it recognizes the possibility of church liability for the sexual misconduct of clergy on the basis of two theories that have been rejected by most other courts—respondeat superior and breach of a fiduciary duty. The court concluded that criminal acts of sexual misconduct by a minister can result in liability for the minister’s employing church on the basis of respondeat superior if they arise out of counseling designed to further the mission of the church. This is a highly controversial conclusion that has been rejected by most courts. Further, the court recognized breach of a fiduciary duty as another basis for church liability in sexual misconduct cases, although its definition of a fiduciary relationship was quite narrow. Doe v. Norwich Roman Catholic Diocesan Corporation, 309 F.Supp.2d 247 (D. Conn. 2004).

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