Victim May Sue Religious School and Its Leaders for Failing to Report Abuse, Court Says

A negligence claim can proceed on evidence that religious leaders failed to follow state reporting laws.

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.

A Connecticut court ruled that a religious school could be sued by a victim of child abuse on the ground that school officials were aware of the abuse but failed to report it to the state.

A kindergarten student at the school was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions by an older student. The sexual assaults occurred at the school. The school knew that the offender had previously been accused of assaulting another student at the school.

The victim reported the assault to her kindergarten teacher, who did not take any action. The victim spoke to a psychotherapist after her parents noticed she had stopped eating. The victim explained to the psychotherapist that she had been sexually assaulted by another student.

The victim’s mother reported the abuse to a religious leader with oversight of the school, but he failed to report it in the manner mandated by Connecticut law. The mother next reported the abuse to the school’s principal who did not report the sexual assault until the mother insisted a report be filed.

The victim sued the principal and the religious leader, claiming that they were mandatory child abuse reporters and that their failure to report the abuse allowed the offender to continue molesting her.

A state court rejected the defendants’ request to dismiss the claims against them, but the court declined by primarily addressing the religious leader with oversight of the school:

To the extent that the victim claims that the [religious leader] is liable for negligence for failing to report the sexual assault, the victim has sufficiently alleged this claim. The victim alleges that the religious leader operates the school and supervises the teachers and other administrators of the school. Specifically, the victim alleges that he sets the school’s policies and procedures and further supervises its daily operations. He also allegedly hired other administrators and teachers at the school and recruited students. These allegations are sufficient to maintain an action against the defendants for negligence.

What this means for churches

Eight states have enacted laws that create civil liability for failure to report child abuse. In these states, victims of child abuse can sue adults who failed to report the abuse. In each state, the statute only permits victims of child abuse to sue mandatory reporters who failed to report the abuse. No liability is created for persons who are not mandatory reporters as defined by state law.

The text of each of these eight statutes is set forth below.

1. Arkansas

“A person required by this chapter to make a report of child maltreatment or suspected child maltreatment to the Child Abuse Hotline who purposely fails to do so is civilly liable for damages proximately caused by that failure.” Arkansas Code § 12-18-206.

2. Colorado

Any person who is a mandatory reporter of child abuse and who willfully fails to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of abuse “shall be liable for damages proximately caused thereby.” Colorado Statutes § 19-3-304(4)(b).

3. Iowa

“Any person, official, agency or institution, required . . . to report a suspected case of child abuse who knowingly fails to do so or who knowingly interferes with the making of such a report . . . is civilly liable for the damages proximately caused by such failure or interference.” Iowa Code § 232.75(2).

4. Michigan

“A person who is required by this act to report an instance of suspected child abuse or neglect and who fails to do so is civilly liable for the damages proximately caused by the failure.” Michigan Compiled Laws § 722.633 sec. 13(1)(3).

5. Montana

“Any person, official, or institution required by law to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect who fails to do so or who prevents another person from reasonably doing so is civilly liable for the damages proximately caused by such failure or prevention.” Montana Code § 41-3-207(1).

6. New York

“Any person, official or institution required by this title to report a case of suspected child abuse or maltreatment who knowingly and willfully fails to do so shall be civilly liable for the damages proximately caused by such failure.” New York Social Services Law § 420.

7. Ohio

“Whoever violates division (A) of this section [i.e., mandatory child abuse reporters] is liable for compensatory and exemplary damages to the child who would have been the subject of the report that was not made. A person who brings a civil action or proceeding pursuant to this division against a person who is alleged to have violated division (A)(1) of this section may use in the action or proceeding reports of other incidents of known or suspected abuse or neglect, provided that any information in a report that would identify the child who is the subject of the report or the maker of the report, if the maker is not the defendant or an agent or employee of the defendant, has been redacted.” Ohio Revised Code § 2151.421(N).

8. Rhode Island

“Any person, official, physician, or institution who knowingly fails to perform any act required by this chapter or who knowingly prevents another person from performing a required act shall be civilly liable for the damages proximately caused by that failure.” Rhode Island General Laws § 40-11-6.1.

Key point. Persons who are mandatory child abuse reporters in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island can be sued by victims of child abuse for failure to comply with state child abuse reporting requirements. These lawsuits may be brought in some states many years after the failure to report.

It is possible that other state legislatures will enact laws giving victims of child abuse the legal right to sue mandatory reporters who failed to comply with their reporting obligations.

It is also possible that the courts in some states—such as the one here in this Connecticut case—will allow victims to sue mandatory reporters for failing to report child abuse even if no state law grants them the specific right to do so. Courts may perhaps even permit victims to sue those who are not mandatory reporters. These potential risks must be considered when evaluating whether or not to report known or suspected incidents of child abuse.

A few courts have ruled that clergy who are mandatory child abuse reporters under state law can be personally liable for monetary damages for failing to report abuse even if no statute explicitly granting such a right exists.

But several other courts have ruled that victims of child abuse have no legal right to sue a mandatory or permissive reporter who knew of the abuse but failed to report it. According to these courts, any legal remedy must be provided by the legislature.

Doe v. Abusahyounn, 2018 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3383 (Conn. Super. 2018).

See also:

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