Sexual Misconduct by Clergy, Lay Employees, and Volunteers – Part 2

A Connecticut court ruled that a Catholic diocese could not be liable for “reckless or wanton misconduct” as a result of the molestation of a minor by a priest.

Church Law and Tax2005-07-01

Sexual misconduct by clergy, lay employees, and volunteers – Part 2

Key point 6-08. State and federal laws provide limited immunity to uncompensated officers and directors of churches and other charities. This means that they cannot be personally liable for their ordinary negligence. However, such laws contain some exceptions. For example, officers and directors may be personally liable for their gross negligence or their willful or wanton misconduct.
Church Officers, Directors, and Trustees

Key point 10-17.1. Punitive damages are monetary damages awarded by a jury “in addition to compensation for a loss sustained, in order to punish, and make an example of, the wrongdoer.” They are awarded when a person’s conduct is reprehensible and outrageous. Most church insurance policies exclude punitive damages. This means that a jury award of punitive damages represents an uninsured risk.

* A Connecticut court ruled that a Catholic diocese could not be liable for “reckless or wanton misconduct” as a result of the molestation of a minor by a priest since diocese officials had no advance notice that the priest might engage in such behavior. The court noted that it was unnecessary to prove that the diocesan officials intended to harm the victim in order to prove reckless or wanton misconduct. However,

there is a wide difference between reckless behavior and mere negligence and merely labeling acts as reckless or wanton is insufficient to establish the facts of recklessness or wantonness. Thoughtlessness and inadvertence are not recklessness. Reckless or wanton behavior implies a conscious disregard of a high risk, such as embarking upon a particularly dangerous course of action after actual warning. Recklessness entails ignoring a perceived risk, or egregious conduct which involves an extreme departure from ordinary care and where danger is apparent. A reckless actor is one who recognizes a substantial risk of harm to others and consciously chooses to act despite such knowledge.

The bishop of the diocese, and his chief assistant, provided affidavits indicating that neither had received complaints or comments suggesting that the priest had ever molested a minor. The court concluded that “once the defendants submitted evidence to show no actual knowledge regarding the priest’s danger to minors it became incumbent upon the plaintiff to offer some admissible evidence tending to disprove that lack of actual knowledge of the substantial risk the priest posed.” Further, “constructive knowledge” (i.e., what diocesan officials should have known, in the exercise of their duties) “is insufficient to establish reckless or wanton conduct.” The court noted that the evidence submitted by the victim amounted to no more than “inadmissible hearsay, the suspicions of third parties who never communicated such opinions to [the diocese], and mere innuendo.” In the absence of any evidence “contradicting the affidavits of the bishop and his assistant that they had no knowledge that the priest posed a risk of sexually assaulting minors,” the victim’s allegation of reckless and wanton conduct had to be dismissed.

The court also rejected the victim’s claim of a “conspiracy” by the Catholic Church to conceal the existence and extent of the sexual molestation of children by priests. It noted that the lawsuit was “devoid of any allegation that [diocesan officials] combined to facilitate the priest’s sexual assault of the plaintiff or anyone else. The purported purpose of the conspiracy was to conceal from public awareness past instances of sexual abuse at the hands of priests to eliminate or minimize the scandalous impact of such information. That alleged objective is a far cry from a conspiracy to facilitate molestation of children by priests generally.”

Application. This case is important for three reasons. First, it provides an excellent discussion of the meaning of “reckless” or “wanton” conduct. These terms are important, because they serve as the basis for punitive damages (which are not covered under any insurance policy) and personal liability of uncompensated board members of churches and other charities. It is therefore important for church leaders to be familiar with the meaning of these terms.

Second, the court concluded that reckless or wanton conduct must be proven by actual knowledge, meaning that churches and church officials cannot be liable on this basis as a result of a minister’s (or any other person’s) sexual molestation of a minor without actual prior notice that the person posed a risk of engaging in such behavior. Such notice generally would be in the form of credible accusations, or prior incidents.

Third, the court rejected the victim’s allegation of a conspiracy. Churches and denominational agencies often are sued on the basis of a conspiracy in personal injury cases, especially those involving sexual misconduct. But as this case indicates, establishing this basis of liability is very difficult. Hayes v. Norwich Roman Catholic Diocese, 2004 WL 2165071 (Conn. Sup. 2004).

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