Sexual Misconduct by Clergy

A court refused to recognize “breach of a fiduciary duty” as a basis for liability by clergy who engaged in a sexual relationship with a counselee.

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.

A Michigan court refused to recognize "breach of a fiduciary duty" as a basis for liability by clergy who engage in a sexual relationship with a counselee.

A male pastor visited a female church member (the "plaintiff") in her home prior to an upcoming surgery. In the months and years that followed, the pastor assumed the role of a pastoral counselor and attempted to help the woman with several personal difficulties she faced.

At some point in the counseling relationship the pastor and plaintiff engaged in a sexual relationship, which was not in any way related to or condoned under church doctrine. Plaintiff claimed that the counseling relationship continued and that the pastor used counseling in order to eventually initiate a sexual relationship with her. She also claimed that prior to initiating a sexual relationship, the pastor engaged in an inappropriate course of conduct such as appearing at her home and school, giving her personal greeting cards and inspirational messages, and discussing inappropriate subjects, including "his perceived sexual inadequacies and private parts."

The plaintiff alleged that the pastor began making sexual advances toward her and when she protested, he misled her with his "distorted views of Christian morality," which confused her because of his "superior" status as pastor of her church. She claimed that the pastor became involved in her life to the extent that his financial and emotional assistance to her was in exchange for sexual relations. Moreover, according to the plaintiff, the Synod, District, and local church had a responsibility to either prevent the pastor from abusing his ministerial role or to intervene and end the relationship in order to protect her. Plaintiff asserted that the Synod, District, and local church all were aware of the relationship and should have ended the pastor's behavior.

The pastor insisted that his relationship with the plaintiff was entirely consensual. According to him, while he initially offered counseling services to the plaintiff, their relationship developed into a friendship and eventually into a sexual relationship. He claimed that while he continued to discuss plaintiff's personal difficulties and continued to attempt to assist her with her problems during their sexual relationship, his assistance was as an individual and friend rather than as a counselor.

The relationship between the pastor and plaintiff continued for five years, at which time the pastor resigned his position and moved away. The sexual relationship ended at about that time. The plaintiff later sued the pastor for breach of fiduciary duty and emotional distress. She sued her church for negligent supervision, and retention, and two denominational agencies for vicarious liability and negligent hiring, supervision, and retention. While the lawsuit was pending, the church and denominational agencies asked the court to dismiss them from the case.

The trial court rejected the agencies' request, noting that questions remained regarding the "adequacy of the system for dealing with abuse allegations" within the denomination. The local church also asked the court to dismiss it from the case. The court agreed to dismiss the negligent hiring claim against the church, since the church had no reason to anticipate the pastor's actions when it hired him. However, the court refused to dismiss the plaintiff's negligent supervision and retention claims against the church. It found that the church may well have had a duty to further investigate the situation once a member of the board of elders raised concerns about rumors of a relationship between the pastor and plaintiff at a board of elders meeting. The plaintiff, church, and denominational agencies all appealed.

The basis of liability in this case

In this situation, liabilty was claimed against the pastor, the church, and two denominational agencies by the plaintiff. The following looks at the various liabilities reviewed in the case.

The pastor's liability for breaching a fiduciary duty

The plaintiff insisted that the pastor was liable on the basis of his breach of a fiduciary duty for the emotional and psychological injuries she suffered as a result of her sexual relationship with him. She noted that the pastor initiated and pursued a relationship with her that was at first non-sexual by doing things such as visiting her at home, in the hospital, and at school. She also alleged that the pastor began making sexual advances to her, "exposing his private parts" to her, and fondling her, all of which resulted in a sexual relationship between them. She claimed that during their sexual relationship, the pastor promised to marry her and encouraged her to divorce her husband.

The pastor insisted that in reality the plaintiff was claiming that he was liable for "seduction," a basis of liability that the Michigan legislature abolished many years before. The court defined seduction as "the act of persuading or inducing a woman of previously chaste character to depart from the path of virtue by the use of any species of acts, persuasions, or wiles which are calculated to have, and do have, that effect, and resulting in her ultimately submitting her person to the sexual embraces of the person accused."

The court conceded that the plaintiff had made allegations that seemed to be more than seduction. For example, when she initially protested the pastor's sexual advances, he misled her "with his own distorted views of Christian morality, in a way that confused and intimidated [her] given [his] superior status as pastor of her church." Moreover, she alleged that "in the guise of offering Christian guidance and counseling [the pastor] began to wrongfully manipulate [her] thought process and decision making in ways that were personally gratifying to him, yet terribly self-destructive and damaging" to her.

The court concluded that these allegations that the pastor misused his superior position as her pastor and counselor in order to achieve a sexual relationship with her suggested that clergy malpractice, rather than seduction, was the basis of her lawsuit. The court observed:

Illustrative of this conclusion is plaintiff's allegation that [the pastor] owed a duty to her … to practice his religious calling in a reasonable, legal and appropriate manner, and to refrain from any acts or omissions that would violate his ministerial trust, and to function in a legal and moral fashion as appropriate to the role of pastor. Michigan does not recognize a claim for clergy malpractice. In fact, the claim of clergy malpractice has been universally rejected by courts in the United States.

The court further rejected the plaintiff's request that it recognize her claim as one for breach of a fiduciary duty rather than clergy malpractice. It explained its reluctance to make such a distinction by referring to the conclusion of another court:

[I]n order for the plaintiff's cause of action to meet constitutional muster, the jury would have to be able to determine that a fiduciary relationship existed and premise this finding on neutral facts. The insurmountable difficulty facing plaintiff, this court holds, lies in the fact that it is impossible to show the existence of a fiduciary relationship without resort to religious facts. In order to consider the validity of [the] plaintiff's claims of dependency and vulnerability, the jury would have to weigh and evaluate … the legitimacy of [the] plaintiff's beliefs, the tenets of the faith insofar as they reflect upon a priest's ability to act as God's emissary and the nature of the healing powers of the church. To instruct a jury on such matters is to venture into forbidden ecclesiastical terrain. On the other hand, if we try to salvage [the] plaintiff's claim by stripping her narrative of all religious nuance, what is left makes out a cause of action in seduction-a tort no longer recognized in New York-but not in breach of a fiduciary duty.

The pastor's liability for emotional distress

The court noted that in order to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must show "(1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) intent or recklessness, (3) causation, and (4) severe emotional distress. Liability for such a claim has been found only where the conduct complained of has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community. It has been said that the case is generally one in which the recitation of facts to an average member of the community would arouse resentment against the actor, and lead the average member of the community to exclaim 'Outrageous!'"

The court concluded that the plaintiff's allegations failed this standard: "Stripped of religious overtones, plaintiff essentially alleges that a person pursued her, an adult woman, gained her trust, and eventually engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with her, albeit that her consent was given when she was in a vulnerable position. This type of activity does not rise to the level of conduct necessary to satisfy [this] standard … and could not be reasonably regarded as extreme and outrageous."

Liability of the church and denominational agencies

Since the plaintiff failed to establish that the pastor committed any conduct for which relief was available in a court of law, the appeals court ruled that her claims against the church and denominational agencies also had to be dismissed.

What this means for churches

This case demonstrates the difficulty that counselees face in suing clergy on the basis of "breach of fiduciary duty" for inappropriate sexual contacts. Very few courts have recognized this basis of liability. And, as the court pointed out, counselees ordinarily cannot sue clergy for "seduction" or clergy malpractice. Other bases of liability exist, but they were not pursued by the plaintiff in this case. The case also illustrates another important point-churches and denominational agencies cannot be liable for the misconduct of a minister unless the minister is found liable. Teadt v. St. John's Evangelical Church, 1999 WL 731383 (Mich. App. 1999).

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