Pastor, Church & Law

Court Decisions Recognizing Negligent Supervision Claims

§ 10.09.01

Key point 10-09.01. 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.

This section reviews court decisions in which a church or other religious organization was found liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation.

Case studies

  • The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the church knew of the risk the pastor was to children, and yet “instead of keeping him away from children altogether, they disregarded [his] misconduct and allowed him to have unsupervised contact with children. Instead of responding to [his] pedophilic behavior, they concealed and ignored it. [The church] knew [his] history and was in a position to prevent him from repeating it, yet for years it willfully allowed him to go on molesting children with impunity. [Its] inaction in the face of such a menace is not only negligent, it is reckless and abhorrent.”110 The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Hutchinson v. Luddy, 1999 WL 1062862 (Pa. 1999).
  • The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a church whose pastor molested a young boy could be sued on the basis of negligent supervision of the pastor.111 Bear Valley Church of Christ v. DeBose, 928 P.2d 1315 (Colo. 1996).A 7-year-old boy (the “victim”), who was experiencing emotional trauma, was encouraged by his pastor to enter into a counseling relationship with him. The boy’s mother approved, and the counseling sessions lasted for a number of years. From the very first counseling session the victim claimed that the pastor engaged in sexual contact with him, including having him sit on the pastor’s lap while the pastor massaged his thighs and genitals. While these “massages” were occurring the pastor would tell the victim that “your father loves you, your mother loves you, God loves you, and I love you.” Two other adult males claimed that the pastor had engaged in similar behavior with them when they were minors, including a physical inspection of their genitals to see if they had been “properly circumcised.” The parents of two other boys complained to the church board about the pastor’s counseling methods, and in particular his practice of inspecting genitals to check for proper circumcision. Nearly a year later the board responded by directing the pastor to discontinue his counseling of minors. A few months later the pastor was dismissed. The victim and his mother sued the church, claiming that it was responsible for the pastor’s acts on the basis of several grounds including negligent supervision. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the victim, and this verdict was affirmed by the state supreme court. The court rejected the church’s claim that allowing civil judgments against pastoral counselors and their churches based upon conduct occurring during counseling sessions could so “entangle” the government with religious practices as to violate the First Amendment. It acknowledged that “the decision to hire or discharge a minister is itself inextricable from religious doctrine.” However, a court must “distinguish internal hiring disputes within religious organizations from general negligence claims filed by injured third parties.”
  • 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. The victim 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.”112 Fortin v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland, 871 A.2d 1208 (Me. 2005).
  • A Minnesota court ruled that a church could be sued on the basis of negligent supervision as a result of a pastor’s acts of child molestation.113 Doe v. Redeemer Lutheran Church, 531 N.W.2d 897 (Minn. App. 1995). Accord C.B. ex rel. L.B. v. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?726 N.W.2d 127 (Minn. App. 2007).?A Minnesota court, in rejecting the argument that a church was liable on the basis of negligent supervision for the molestation of minor, noted that “to make out a successful claim for negligent supervision, the plaintiff must prove (1) the employee’s conduct was foreseeable; and (2) the employer failed to exercise ordinary care when supervising the employee. In negligence cases, foreseeability means a level of probability that would lead a prudent person to take effective precautions. If the abusive behavior was objectively foreseeable, then the inquiry must focus on whether the employer took reasonable precautions, beforehand, to prevent the abuse.”The pastor served as both pastor and youth program teacher at the church. He lived in a third floor apartment at the church’s youth center. The victim attended confirmation classes at the church, and the pastor was his instructor. The victim so admired the pastor that he wanted to become a pastor himself. The victim often went with the pastor to make calls or visit other churches. He also attended church camp during the summer and at times stayed overnight at the pastor’s apartment. When the victim was 13 to 16 years old, he was molested by the pastor. Prior to his abuse, the victim was a good student and athlete. After the abuse, his grades dropped and he quit playing team sports. During his late teens, he was hospitalized as a result of an attempted suicide. He later suffered from alcohol abuse and social phobia including panic attacks. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the victim, and a state appeals court affirmed this judgment. The appeals court concluded that the church had been negligent in permitting the sexual abuse to occur. This conclusion was based in part on the following facts: (1) During the time the victim was being molested, a church trustee saw the pastor kissing another adolescent boy on the mouth. The pastor, upon seeing the trustee, blushed and ran back to his apartment. The trustee informed another trustee of this incident, along with two members of the church council. No action was taken. (2) During the time the victim was being molested, another church trustee was approached by a local teacher and asked if the pastor was a child molester. This same trustee’s uncle told him that he heard something went on at a cabin at church camp and asked if the pastor was “straight.” (3) During the time the victim was being molested, a church trustee’s son had to make up some work for confirmation classes at the pastor’s home. When he returned home, he told his father that the pastor wanted him “to get under the sheets” with him. (4) During the time the victim was being molested, a student in the confirmation class testified that during a confirmation class at the church she thought she saw the pastor engage in an act of child abuse. She told her parents and the church’s “intern pastor” what she saw. The girl and her parents quit attending the church after this incident. (5) During the time the victim was being molested, another confirmation student told the church’s intern pastor that the pastor had “put his arm around him all of the time” and showered with the boys.
  • A New York court ruled that a Catholic diocese could be sued on the basis of negligent supervision for a priest’s acts of child molestation.114 Kenneth R. v. Roman Catholic Diocese, 654 N.Y.S.2d 791 (N.Y.A.D. 1997).The offending priest was ordained in Venezuela and moved to the United States with a letter of reference from his archbishop. He later molested a minor (the “victim”). The victim later sued the diocese, claiming that it was legally responsible for the priest’s conduct on the basis of negligent hiring, negligent supervision, and negligent retention. A trial court dismissed all of the victim’s claims against the diocese, and the victim appealed. A state appeals court concluded that the diocese could be sued for negligent supervision and negligent retention. The victim alleged that the diocese became aware of the danger the priest posed to minors after hiring him as a result of comments both he and the priest made to other priests regarding inappropriate behavior. The court noted that if the victim or the priest made such statements to other priests, then the diocese might be legally responsible for the priest’s actions on the basis of negligent retention and negligent supervision. The court insisted that imposing liability on the diocese under such circumstances “would not violate constitutional and statutory guarantees of free exercise of religion and separation of church and state.” The court conceded that other courts have concluded that the First Amendment may bar victims from suing churches or clergy on the basis of conduct “finding its basis in religious beliefs and practices.” This was not the case here, however, since “there is no indication that requiring increased supervision of [the priest] or the termination of his employment by the [diocese] based upon [his] conduct would violate any religious doctrine or inhibit any religious practice.”
  • A federal court in Pennsylvania ruled that there was sufficient evidence to find a church liable for a priest’s acts of child molestation on the basis of negligent retention and negligent supervision, but not on the basis of negligent hiring. The court noted that there was evidence that an adolescent boy (the “victim”) was sleeping in the priest’s home, and that the priest had taken the victim on several overnight trips and provided him with several gifts. The court concluded that “a reasonable jury could conclude that there was adequate warning to the church defendants that [the priest] was grooming the plaintiff for a homosexual relationship, and that it may well have already begun. The notice of the plaintiff’s sleepovers in the rectory, the gifts given to him and the overnight trips is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to conclude that the church defendants were negligent or reckless in retaining him as a priest.” A reasonable jury also could conclude that the church defendants “were negligent or reckless in permitting, or failing to prevent [the priest’s] conduct upon church premises, given the plaintiff’s statement that he routinely sexually abused him while they slept in his bedroom in the church rectory.”115 Doe v. Liberatore, 478 F.Supp.2d 742 (M.D. Pa. 2007).

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