Sexual Misconduct by Clergy, Lay Employees, and Volunteers

The Maine Supreme Court ruled that a Catholic diocese could be sued on the basis of negligent supervision and breach of a fiduciary duty for a priest’s molestation of an adolescent male.

Key point 4-08
. Every state has a child abuse reporting law that requires persons designated as mandatory reporters to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse. Ministers are mandatory reporters in many states. Some states exempt ministers from reporting child abuse if they learned of the abuse in the course of a conversation protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Ministers may face criminal and civil liability for failing to report child abuse.

Key point 10-09.1
. Some courts have found churches liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker's acts of child molestation on the ground that the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the victim or of its own programs and activities.

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.

The Maine Supreme Court ruled that a Catholic diocese could be sued on the basis of negligent supervision and breach of a fiduciary duty for a priest's molestation of an adolescent male who served as an altar boy and attended a church school, and whose parents were partially incapacitated and unable to fully oversee his upbringing.

An adult male (Michael) sued a priest who allegedly molested him when he was a minor, and a Catholic diocese. The lawsuit alleged several theories of liability, including negligent supervision and breach of a fiduciary duty. A trial court dismissed all claims, and Michael appealed to the state supreme court.

Negligent supervision

Michael claimed that the diocese was responsible for his injuries on the basis of its "negligent supervision" of the priest after learning of his propensity to sexually abuse boys and its failure to report him to the police and notify members of the parish. The court stressed that "the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom mandates that we carefully balance the relevant societal interests and the potential interference with religious freedom when assessing claims against religious organizations based on allegations of abusive conduct by members of the clergy."

It concluded that a "special relationship" between a church and a victim of clergy sexual abuse "may give rise to a duty on the part of the church to prevent harm caused by the intentional acts of its clergy."

Fiduciary relationship

Michael's claim of a fiduciary relationship was based on the fact that throughout the seven-year period that he was abused by the priest, he was both a parochial school student and an altar boy at the church. In addition, his lawsuit alleged that the priest and diocese knew that his parents suffered from illnesses that limited their involvement in raising their son, and this gave rise to a special relationship in terms of the religious training and education of their son.

The court agreed that Michael's special involvement in the activities of the church as both a parochial school student and an altar boy "distinguished his status from that of a general member of the church." For example, his involvement required "that he be physically present at the church more often than a general member and that he have substantially greater day-to-day contact with members of the clergy and faculty than would a general member." The court concluded that a special relationship did exist between Michael and his church and diocese that supported claims of both negligent supervision and breach of a fiduciary duty:

Michael has asserted the existence of a special relationship that ineluctably involved the actual placement of trust, as well as a substantial disparity of power and influence between him and the diocese. By its very nature, such a special relationship renders a child vulnerable to the possibility of abuse at the hands of a miscreant employee. An established and close connection between a child and an organization, whether religious, academic, or otherwise, is a reasonable basis, informed by both common sense and common experience, to impose a duty on the organization to prevent harm to the child.

When viewed in the most positive light, Michael's allegations establish a special relationship between him and the diocese as his fiduciary. Such a relationship gave rise to a duty to protect on the part of the diocese if the diocese had reason to believe that a priest posed a substantial risk of harm to a child in Michael's circumstances. The duty does not exist simply because of Michael's status as a student and altar boy, but because of the added assertion that the diocese knew or should have known of the risk of harm posed by the priest who abused him.

First Amendment defense

The diocese asserted that the First Amendment religion clauses prohibited a civil court from imposing a duty upon a religious organization to supervise its clergy. The court rejected this defense, noting that the First Amendment "is violated only when laws actually conflict with a religion's specific doctrines and therefore impose penalties either for engaging in religiously motivated conduct or for refusing to engage in religiously prohibited conduct." It concluded that "we cannot infer from the diocese's generalized assertions that there is, in fact, an actual doctrine or practice that will be substantially burdened by the resolution of Michael's claim."

The diocese claimed that "the intrinsic logic of any judicial declaration and administration of a standard of care for church oversight of clergy necessarily will involve the court deeply in matters of theology and governance." The court disagreed: "It is not self-evident in this case that the application of a duty of due care will cause the court to probe deeply into the allocation of power within an hierarchical church so as to decide religious law governing church polity in violation of the First Amendment." The court did concede that the diocese could present evidence to the trial court that a resolution of Michael's claim would compel the court to "decide religious law governing church polity" in violation of the First Amendment. However, it cautioned that "the diocese's right to the free exercise of religion will not be infringed in the present case if the employment decisions it made do not implicate religious beliefs, procedures, or law."

The court concluded, "If a religious organization knows or has reason to know that a member of its clergy has a propensity to sexually abuse children, the First Amendment is not necessarily violated if the civil law imposes on the organization a duty to exercise due care to protect children with whom the organization has a fiduciary relationship …. Michael's claim that the diocese learned of the priest's propensity to sexually exploit and abuse young boys, but failed to report him to law enforcement officials and then concealed the information from the parishioners, and the public, stated a claim upon which relief can be granted."

. There are two significant points to note. First, the court recognized a "fiduciary duty" giving rise to liability on the part of the diocese for both negligent supervision and breach of a fiduciary duty. However, the court defined a fiduciary or "special" relationship narrowly. Such a relationship requires more than church attendance or membership. In this case, Michael had a special relationship with the diocese because he was a minor; his parents were unable, due to their physical infirmity, to properly raise him, and this fact was known to the diocese; Michael served as an altar boy at the church and attended the church's parochial school.

Second, the court concluded that the diocese's failure to report the priest's prior acts of child molestation to law enforcement, and to the church congregation, could support liability based on both negligent supervision and breach of a fiduciary duty. Fortin v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland, 871 A.2d 1208 (Me. 2005).

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