Sexual Misconduct by Clergy, Lay Employees, and Volunteers – Part 4

A New York court ruled that a church could not be liable on the basis of negligent supervision or negligent retention for the sexual misconduct of a minister.

Church Law and Tax2004-03-01

Sexual misconduct by clergy, lay employees, and volunteers – Part 4

Key point 10-07.2. Many courts have ruled that the first amendment prevents churches from being legally responsible on the basis of negligent retention for the misconduct of ministers.

Key point 10-18.2. Most courts have refused to hold denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches, either because of first amendment considerations or because the relationship between the denominational agency and affiliated church or minister is too remote to support liability.
Denominational Liability

* A New York court ruled that a church could not be liable on the basis of negligent supervision or negligent retention for the sexual misconduct of a minister, since imposing liability on these grounds would violate the first amendment. A priest allegedly molested ten boys (the plaintiffs) between 1977 and 1986. The plaintiffs sued various church defendants, but the court threw out all claims because they were filed after the statute of limitations had expired. The court, however, made the following observation, “The cause of action plead with respect to negligent retention and negligent supervision must also fail for reasons independent of the statute of limitations defense. Any attempt by the court to define standards and rules under which a priest is retained or supervised necessarily and impermissibly involves the court in church doctrine.” The court referred to a previous decision by a federal district court in New York that reached this conclusion. Schmidt v. Bishop, 779 F. Supp. 321 (S.D.N.Y. 1991). The Schmidt case was addressed fully in the November-December 1992 issue of this newsletter. Mars v. Diocese of Rochester, 763 N.Y.S.2d 885 (Sup. Ct. 2003).

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