Sexual Misconduct by Clergy, Lay Employees, and Volunteers – Part 1

A Delaware court ruled that a church could be liable on the basis of negligence and emotional distress for its failure to act when a female member complained.

Church Law and Tax 2005-07-01

Sexual misconduct by clergy, lay employees, and volunteers – Part 1

Key point 4-11.1. Clergy who engage in sexual contact with an adult or minor are subject to civil liability on the basis of several legal theories. They also are subject to criminal liability.

Key point 8-08.2. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It consists of both “quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile environment” harassment. Religious organizations that are subject to Title VII are covered by this prohibition. An employer is automatically liable for supervisory employees’ acts of harassment, but a defense is available to claims of hostile environment harassment if they have adopted a written harassment policy and an alleged victim fails to pursue remedies available under the policy. In some cases, an employer may be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by nonsupervisory employees, and even nonemployees.

* A Delaware court ruled that a church could be liable on the basis of negligence and emotional distress for its failure to act when a female member complained to church leaders about sexually harassing phone calls the pastor had made to her over a period of several months. A female church member (Kate) alleged that her senior pastor made sexually harassing phone calls to her over a period of several months. Kate told members of her church board about the phone calls, but no action was taken. She then attempted to contact the bishop of a denominational agency (“regional church”) with which the church was affiliated, but he refused to listen to tape recordings Kate had made of several phone conversations with the pastor. Left without recourse, Kate filed a complaint with the local police, who arrested the pastor. Following the arrest, the regional church convened a committee that found the pastor guilty of sexual harassment in violation of the denomination’s Book of Discipline. Kate claimed that she suffered a stroke, slurred speech, mental and emotional anguish, and defamation as the result of the failure by the church and regional church to respond to her complaints. She sued both defendants for emotional distress, defamation, and negligence. The trial court dismissed the allegations against the regional church, but allowed Kate to pursue her claims against her church.

On appeal, the church made the following arguments in its defense: (1) It had no duty to exercise reasonable care toward Kate (only the pastor had such a duty), and therefore could not be guilty of negligence for breaching such a duty; (2) Kate failed to allege sufficient facts to support a claim of emotional distress against it since its failure to act in response to her complaints did not amount to extreme and outrageous conduct as required to prove emotional distress; (3) any physical or emotional damages Kate suffered were the result of the pastor’s behavior and not anything the church did or did not do.

A state appeals court concluded that when Kate approached church leaders with her allegations regarding the pastor’s harassing phone calls the church may have acquired a duty to exercise reasonable care on her behalf. It observed, “A church owes some duty to a parishioner who complains of harassment by someone in a position of authority within the church, because a church stands in a special relationship to a parishioner.” As a result, the court rejected the church’s request to dismiss the negligence claim.

The court next addressed Kate’s emotional distress claim. It noted that establishing an emotional distress claim requires actions that are “so extreme in degree that it goes beyond all bounds of decency and is regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.” The court concluded, “Kate approached church administration about the matter, but the church failed to do anything at all. A reasonable jury could well conclude that this failure was sufficiently outrageous conduct by the church to support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.” As a result, the court rejected the church’s request to dismiss the emotional distress claim.

Application. This case is important for one reason. It demonstrates the legal risk churches assume when credible complaints of misconduct by a staff member are ignored. According to this court, a church has a duty to respond to such complaints in a reasonable manner, which at a minimum would include a prompt and thorough investigation and a decision based on the strength of the evidence and the seriousness of the misconduct. Collins v. International Ministries and Lay Associations of the A.M.E. Zion Church, 2004 WL 2419178 (Dela. Super. 2004).

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