Key point 10-10.01. Some courts have found churches liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a minister’s acts of sexual misconduct involving adult church members on the ground that the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the minister.
This section reviews court decisions in which a church or other religious organization was found liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a minister’s acts of sexual misconduct with another adult.
- The Colorado Supreme Court found an Episcopal diocese and bishop legally responsible for a pastor’s sexual misconduct with a female parishioner on the basis of a number of grounds, including negligent supervision.124 Moses v. Diocese of Colorado, 863 P.2d 310 (Colo. 1993).The court observed, “An employer may therefore be subject to liability for negligent supervision if he knows or should have known that an employee’s conduct would subject third parties to an unreasonable risk of harm. … Both the diocese and [the bishop] had previous exposure to the problem of sexual relationships developing between priests and parishioners because the problem had arisen seven times before. The psychological reports gave notice that further supervision may be required. The reports indicate problems of sexual identification ambiguity, depression and low self-esteem. [The pastor’s] file also indicated he had problems with authority. [He] had an inability to respond to superior authority. A reasonable person would have inquired further into [his] known difficulty in dealing with superior authority, and would have assumed a greater degree of care in monitoring his conduct. In light of its knowledge, it was reasonable for the jury to determine the [bishop and diocese] should have been alert to the possibility of problems with [the pastor] and taken adequate steps to insure [he] was not in a position where he could abuse the trust he enjoys as a priest conducting counseling.”
- A New York court ruled that a woman stated a valid claim for negligent retention and supervision against a church based on the sexual misconduct of the pastor in the course of marriage counseling. The court noted that a church officer allegedly was informed that the pastor was having an affair with the woman, that the affair had lasted for more than two years, and that the church allowed the marital counseling to continue while at the same time urging the woman’s husband not to file a grievance with a denominational agency that would have led to an investigation. According to the woman and her husband, the church knew, or should have known, of the pastor’s propensity to engage in harmful conduct, but decided to look the other way.125 Vione v. Tewell, 820 N.Y.S.2d 682 (N.Y. Sup. 2006).
- An Oregon court ruled that a woman who was sexually seduced by her minister in the course of a counseling relationship could sue her church on the basis of negligent supervision.126 Erickson v. Christenson, 781 P.2d 383 (Or. App. 1989).The woman alleged that the church “knew or should have known that [the minister] was not adequately trained as a counselor and that it knew or should have known that he had misused his position in the past to take advantage of parishioners and counseled persons … [and] failed to investigate claims of his sexual misconduct [or] warn parishioners of his misuse of his position. …” The court stressed that it was not finding the church responsible. Rather, it simply was rejecting the trial court’s conclusion that the lawsuit failed to state facts for which the law provides a remedy.
- A Washington state court ruled that a Catholic Archdiocese was liable for the negligent supervision of a supervisor who sexually harassed a female employee.127 Wheeler v. Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, 829 P.2d 196 (Wash. App. 1992).A female housekeeper at a conference center owned by the archdiocese claimed that a maintenance director began sexually harassing her shortly after he began his job. The harassment consisted of numerous sexually explicit and offensive statements. The maintenance director eventually was fired. The female employee later sued the archdiocese, claiming that it was legally responsible for his acts on the basis of negligent supervision. A jury ruled in favor of the female employee, and this ruling was affirmed by a state appeals court.