Pastor, Church & Law

Court Decisions Rejecting Negligent Supervision Claims

§ 10.09.02

Key point 10-09.02. Some courts have found churches not liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation on the ground that the church exercised reasonable care in the supervision of the victim and of its own programs and activities.

This section reviews court decisions in which a church or other religious organization was found not liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation.

Case Studies

  • A federal appeals court ruled that an archdiocese was not responsible for the alleged molestation of a minor by a priest.116 Tichenor v. Roman Catholic Church, 32 F.3d 953 (5th Cir. 1994).An adult male sued a priest, a local Catholic church, and an archdiocese claiming that while he was a minor the priest performed illicit sexual acts upon him. The plaintiff alleged that the archdiocese and church were liable because they knew or should have known that illicit acts were being performed on their premises and at the priest’s home. He charged that they failed to protect him or take appropriate measures to ascertain or correct the situation. Moreover, he alleged that they knew or should have known that they were fostering the priest’s illicit activities and providing him with the means with which to conduct such activities. In rejecting the plaintiff’s claim that the archdiocese was responsible for his injuries on the basis of negligent supervision, the court observed: “Employers do not have a duty to supervise their employees when the employees are off-duty or not working. Employers also are not liable for failure to supervise when the employee engages in independent criminal conduct which results in the plaintiff’s injuries. Moreover, an employer’s duty to supervise does not include a duty to uncover his employees’ concealed, clandestine, personal activities. … It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the frequency with which these cases have surfaced suggests that the clergy at [the local church] were naive. There is, however, nothing to indicate that the archdiocese or [church] knew or should have known of what was taking place in [the priest’s] private world.”
  • The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a church was not legally responsible for the sexual molestation of a 10-year-old girl.117 N.J. v. Greater Emanuel Temple Holiness Church, 611 So.2d 1036 (Ala. 1992).A 10-year-old girl lived near a church that operated a kindergarten at which her aunt was the head teacher. The girl’s mother instructed her to walk to the church following school, and then have her aunt escort her home when she quit work at 5:30 p.m. One day, while waiting on the church property for her aunt, the girl was raped by an adolescent male. The girl was raped a second time by the same adolescent several days later. The girl did not disclose the rapes to anyone until, during a routine medical examination, the family physician found evidence of sexual relations. The girl at first denied that she had ever engaged in sexual relations, but later acknowledged that the adolescent male (who was known to her) had raped her on two occasions. The girl’s mother later filed a lawsuit against the church, claiming that it had failed to use “due care” in watching and supervising the girl “thereby allowing” the rape to occur. A trial court ruled in favor of the church, and the mother appealed. The state supreme court agreed that the church could not be legally responsible for the girl’s injuries. The court acknowledged that there may have been an oral agreement between the mother and the aunt to care for the girl after school. However, the court insisted that “there was no evidence that [the victim] was, in fact, under the care of the church.” The court continued, “[T]he mere fact that an injury has occurred is not evidence of negligence and … in negligent supervision cases negligence will not be found by inference. Assuming, without deciding, that there was an agreement that [the victim] was to be supervised and cared for by the church, [the victim] failed to produce any evidence demonstrating that the church negligently supervised her on the days she says she was assaulted and raped. Thus, a finding that [the girl] was negligently supervised on the days in question could be had only by inference [and] we may not draw that inference here.” The court also emphasized that churches ordinarily cannot be found guilty of negligent supervision without some special relationship or special circumstances that were not present in this case: “[T]he general rule is that absent special relationships or circumstances, a person has no duty to protect another from criminal acts of a third person. … [A defendant cannot] be held liable for the criminal act of a third party unless the defendant knew or had reason to know that the criminal act was about to occur on the defendant’s premises.”
  • A California court ruled that a Catholic church was not responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for a priest’s acts of child molestation, since “nearly all” of the acts of molestation occurred when the priest “took the victim from her home to various public places and hotels.”118 Roman Catholic Bishop v. Superior Court, 50 Cal. Rptr.2d 399 (Cal. App. 1996).
  • The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a school was not liable on the basis of negligent supervision for the sexual seduction of a high school student by a female teacher.119 P.L. v. Aubert, 545 N.W.2d 666 (Minn. 1996). See also Doe 169 v. Brandon, 845 N.W.2d 174 (Minn. 2014).The teacher used a counseling relationship with a male student as the basis for a sexual relationship that continued for several months. Most of the sexual encounters occurred during regular school hours on school premises. The victim later sued the school, claiming that it was responsible for his injuries on the basis of negligent supervision. In rejecting the victim’s claim that the school was guilty of negligent supervision, the court observed: “[The school] performed standard teacher evaluations of [the teacher]. In addition to the evaluations [school officials] made several unannounced visits to [the teacher’s] classrooms. Because the school had no public address system, all messages were hand-delivered by staff and students to classrooms throughout the course of the school day. Even with all of this interaction during the school day, the [secret] relationship between teacher and student was never observed. A school cannot be held liable for actions that are not foreseeable when reasonable measures of supervision are employed to insure adequate educational duties are being performed by the teachers, and there is adequate consideration being given for the safety and welfare of all students in the school. The safety and welfare of the students in a school setting is paramount. However, in this case, closer vigilance would not have uncovered the relationship because both participants worked hard to conceal it.”
  • A New York Court ruled that a church was not liable on the basis of negligent supervision for the sexual misconduct of an employee. It concluded: “As to theories concerning supervision or retention, we note the employee had worked as a coordinator at the church for at least five years prior to the alleged incident. During that period, the church did not receive any complaints about the employee, and did not know of anyone else who had received complaints about him. Plaintiff himself had never heard of any complaints, and the employee had never been convicted of any crime.”120 Osvaldo D. v. Rector Church Wardens and Vestrymen of the Parish of Trinity Church of New York, 834 N.Y.S.2d 94 (N.Y.A.D. 2007). See also Bouchard v. New York Archdiocese, 719 F.Supp.2d 255 (S.D.N.Y. 2010)..
  • An Ohio court ruled that a church was not responsible for the rape of a six-year-old boy occurring on church property during Sunday school.121 Bender v. First Church of the Nazarene 571 N.E.2d 475 (Ohio App. 1989).The boy attended a Sunday school class of about 45 first and second graders. One adult female teacher was present on the day of the rape along with two teenage volunteers (one male and one female). During “story time,” the victim became disruptive, and the teacher allowed the male volunteer to “take him back and color” in an unused room. The adult teacher did not check on the boy for the remainder of the Sunday school session. The boy’s mother alleged that the male volunteer took her son to an unused room, raped him, and threatened to kill him if he “told anyone.” The boy and his mother later sued the church, claiming that the boy’s injuries were a result of the church’s “negligent supervision” of its agents. The court noted that “negligence does not consist of failing to take extraordinary measures which hindsight demonstrates would have been helpful.” The court further observed that a church is “not an insurer of the safety” of persons on its premises, but rather has only a “duty of ordinary care to avoid injury consistent with [existing] facts and circumstances.” The court emphasized that the victim and his mother “have presented no evidence that [the church] knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known of or anticipated a criminal sexual assault by [the alleged rapist] upon another.” The victim and his mother placed great significance upon evidence that “a similar incident had occurred several years earlier.” In rejecting the relevance of this evidence the court observed simply that “there is no evidence that the church or its agents knew, or in the exercise of diligence, should have known of such prior activity.”
  • A Texas court rejected a parent’s claim that a church was responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for the molestation of her daughter by a youth pastor.122 Eckler v. The General Council of the Assemblies of God, 784 S.W.2d 935 (Tex. App. 1990).A mother enrolled her daughter in a private school operated by a local church. A few months later, the mother discovered three sexually explicit letters which she believed were correspondence between her daughter and the youth pastor (who also taught at the school). These letters, along with explicit entries in the daughter’s diary, led the mother to believe that her daughter and the youth pastor were engaging in sexual activities. She took the evidence to the senior minister of the church, asking for his assistance. Unsatisfied with the investigation, the mother sued the church and a national denominational agency. She claimed that the national church was responsible for the youth pastor’s acts on the basis of negligent supervision. In rejecting this claim, the court noted that negligence requires proof that someone’s conduct actually caused injuries to another, and it concluded that the national church’s act of ordaining or licensing clergy in no way was the cause of the girl’s injuries. Further, in rejecting the plaintiff’s claim that the national church used “less than ordinary care” in discharging its “continuing duty” to monitor and supervise its clergy, the court observed that the national church “exercises no supervisory powers over the local ministers” and “is not responsible for the day-to-day oversight of the ministers.” Since the national church had no duty to supervise clergy, “it is impossible that lack of supervision … was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injuries.”

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