Pastor, Church & Law


§ 10.14

Key point 10-14. Churches may be liable on the basis of “ratification” for the unauthorized act of a minister or other church worker if it is aware of the act and voluntarily affirms it.

A few courts have found churches liable on the basis of “ratification” for the acts of clergy and lay workers. Ratification is “the affirmance by a person of a prior act which did not bind him but which was done or professedly done on his account, whereby the act, as to some or all persons, is given effect as if originally authorized by him.”168 Restatement, Agency 2d § 82.

Stated differently, a church can be liable for the unauthorized acts of an employee or volunteer if it ratifies those acts either expressly or by implication. In order to be liable for unauthorized acts on the basis of ratification, a church must have knowledge of all material facts surrounding the acts and voluntarily affirm them. A church may ratify contracts, promissory notes, deeds, and other legal documents that are signed without authorization, and it may ratify acts causing personal injuries. In many cases, a church ratifies an unauthorized act by accepting or retaining the benefits of the transaction. To illustrate, if a church treasurer without authorization signs a contract to purchase a vehicle on behalf of the church, the church will be liable on the contract on the basis of ratification if it retains and uses the vehicle without objection.

Case studies

A federal appeals court ruled that an archdiocese was not responsible on the basis of ratification for the alleged molestation of a minor by a priest.169 Tichenor v. Roman Catholic Church, 32 F.3d 953 (5th Cir. 1994).The court also rejected the victim’s claim that the archdiocese “ratified” the priest’s actions by not addressing them despite suspicious circumstances. According to the victim, suspicion translates into “constructive knowledge” which is tantamount to a “passive ratification” of the priest’s activities. The court noted that “[t]his is a novel proposition to be sure,” and it refused to recognize it.

A Colorado court ruled that a church could be sued on the basis of ratification for the molestation of a child by a pastor.170 DeBose v. Bear Valley Church of Christ, 890 P.2d 214 (Colo. App. 1994), aff’d, 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 sexually molested him. A jury found the church liable for the pastor’s misconduct on the ground that it “ratified” his actions. On appeal, the church insisted that (1) intentional misconduct by a pastor cannot be ratified; (2) it could not ratify actions of the pastor that were outside the scope of his employment; and (3) there was insufficient evidence that it ratified the pastor’s actions. The court disagreed with all three objections. In rejecting the church’s first objection, the court observed that “[a]n employer can assume liability for the tortious conduct of its employee by approving and ratifying such conduct, irrespective whether that conduct is intentional or negligent.” Similarly, in rejecting the church’s second objection the court observed that “[a]n employer may ratify the unauthorized act of its employee, i.e., an act not within the scope of the employment, and thereby become obligated to the same extent as if the principal had originally authorized the act.” As a result, “it is no defense for the church here that [the pastor’s] alleged conduct with the minor fell outside the scope of his defined job responsibilities.” Finally, in responding to the church’s third objection that there was insufficient evidence that it ratified the pastor’s misconduct, the court observed: “In order for an employer to be liable by ratification for the unauthorized act of its employee, the evidence must establish the employer’s adoption and confirmation of that act. And, an employer must have full knowledge of the character of the employee’s act before it may be said to have ratified that act. The fact that an employer retains an employee after gaining knowledge of the employee’s tortious conduct is evidence that may prove ratification of the employee’s acts. However, retention of an employee, without more, is not conclusive evidence of such ratification. Further, numerous acts of an employee committed over a period of time can constitute evidence of an implied ratification of that conduct by the employer. … Here, the evidence was sufficient to allow the finding that the church elders were aware of [the pastor’s] alleged inappropriate counseling behavior as early as 1986. It began receiving complaints from various parishioners with respect to his conduct, starting in 1986 and continuing through 1987 and 1988. Indeed, the minutes of several church elders’ meetings during 1986 and 1987 reflect that the elders were concerned with respect to the church’s “liability and responsibility” for [the pastor’s] counseling; that [he] might be involved in “medical,” rather than religious counseling; and that “many parents are complaining” about [him]. Further, there was evidence, as noted, of specific complaints against [the pastor] made by various parishioners, and there was other evidence that the church failed effectively to respond to such allegations.”

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