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

New York’s highest court ruled that a church and denominational agency were not liable for the sexual misconduct of a pastor.

Church Law and Tax2006-05-01

Sexual misconduct by clergy, lay employees, and volunteer workers – Part 2

Key point 10-13.2. Several courts have refused to hold 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, this result is based on first amendment considerations.

Key point 4-05. Most courts have rejected clergy malpractice as a basis for liability in all cases. A few courts have found clergy guilty of malpractice for engaging in sexual misconduct with an adult or minor, or if they engage in ‘non-religious’ counseling.
Clergy Malpractice

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.
Seduction of Counselees and Church Members

* New York’s highest court ruled that a church and denominational agency were not liable for the sexual misconduct of a pastor. A husband and wife sued their pastor, church, and denomination for compensatory and punitive damages for pain and suffering and mental anguish they suffered as a result of an adulterous relationship between the wife and her pastor. The husband and wife had been seeking marital counseling from the pastor at the time of the affair. A trial court dismissed all the couple’s claims, and they appealed.

Sexual battery

The couple claimed that the pastor had committed sexual battery since his contact with the wife was not consensual or voluntary. The New York Court of Appeals (the highest state court) concluded that the sexual relationship between the parties was consensual. It pointed out that the wife ‘initiated discussions with the pastor concerning her attraction to him. While she informed him that she preferred to terminate the ministerial counseling at that time, the record includes a sample of subsequent emails exchanged between the two expressing a shared affection and professing a growing love for one another.’ After the affair was discovered the wife ‘took the initiative of forwarding these same emails to members of the congregation with the stated intention of demonstrating that the relationship was very mutual.’ Further, there was no evidence that the wife ‘suffered from mental impairment or physical helplessness so as to render her consent impossible.’ Since the affair was consensual, the pastor could not be liable on the basis of sexual battery.

Breach of fiduciary duty

The court agreed that the ‘breach of fiduciary duty’ claim had properly been dismissed. The couple had argued that the pastor had breached ‘the sacred trust between counselor and care-seeker in the course of the ministerial relationship.’ The court noted that the couple’s reference to a ‘sacred trust’ could refer to a fiduciary duty, but their other allegations amounted to a claim of clergy malpractice ‘which would improperly require courts to examine ecclesiastical doctrine in an effort to determine the standard of due care owed to parishioners undergoing ministerial counseling.’ Wende C. v. United Methodist Church, 794 N.Y.S.2d 282 (N.Y. 2005).

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

ajax-loader-largecaret-downcloseHamburger Menuicon_amazonApple PodcastsBio Iconicon_cards_grid_caretChild Abuse Reporting Laws by State IconChurchSalary Iconicon_facebookGoogle Podcastsicon_instagramLegal Library IconLegal Library Iconicon_linkedinLock IconMegaphone IconOnline Learning IconPodcast IconRecent Legal Developments IconRecommended Reading IconRSS IconSubmiticon_select-arrowSpotify IconAlaska State MapAlabama State MapArkansas State MapArizona State MapCalifornia State MapColorado State MapConnecticut State MapWashington DC State MapDelaware State MapFederal MapFlorida State MapGeorgia State MapHawaii State MapIowa State MapIdaho State MapIllinois State MapIndiana State MapKansas State MapKentucky State MapLouisiana State MapMassachusetts State MapMaryland State MapMaine State MapMichigan State MapMinnesota State MapMissouri State MapMississippi State MapMontana State MapMulti State MapNorth Carolina State MapNorth Dakota State MapNebraska State MapNew Hampshire State MapNew Jersey State MapNew Mexico IconNevada State MapNew York State MapOhio State MapOklahoma State MapOregon State MapPennsylvania State MapRhode Island State MapSouth Carolina State MapSouth Dakota State MapTennessee State MapTexas State MapUtah State MapVirginia State MapVermont State MapWashington State MapWisconsin State MapWest Virginia State MapWyoming State IconShopping Cart IconTax Calendar Iconicon_twitteryoutubepauseplay