Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
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.
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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.

September 6, 2019

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