Key point 4-11.1. Clergy who engage in sexual contact with an adult or minor are subject to civil liability on the basis of several legal theories. They also are subject to criminal liability.
A Tennessee court affirmed a 52-year prison sentence for a defendant who engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct with a minor, including sexting.
An adult male (the “defendant”) sexually abused his minor stepdaughter from 2012 to 2016 when the victim was between 11 years old and 15 years old. The defendant was charged with several felony counts. Evidence introduced at his trial included more than 1,000 sexually explicit text messages and images on a cellphone and computer tablet.
What this means for churches
The defendant’s criminal offenses were based, in part, on his sexually oriented text messages with the victim. In many states, the transmission of sexually explicit text messages (“sexting”) via a cellphone or other electronic device constitutes a crime. This case demonstrates the severe consequences individuals can face if they perpetrate abuse against minors, including through illegal activities such as sexting.
Several courts have addressed the issue of criminal liability of pastors for engaging in sexting. Here is one example:
A New Jersey appeals court affirmed the prison sentence of a pastor who engaged in “sexting” and sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl. The defendant was charged with endangering the welfare of a child and criminal sexual contact for which he was sentenced to an aggregate term of six years in prison, parole supervision for life, and additional mandatory penalties. State v. Lopez-Durango, 2018 WL 4956853 (N.J. App. 2018).
For other examples of cases, see “Defending Youth Ministries from 8 Critical Risks.”
Relatedly, such messages also can be used as evidence in civil lawsuits brought against a church. For example, assume that an adolescent female in a church youth group claims that the youth pastor had nonconsensual sexual contact with her. She sues the church, claiming that it is responsible for the pastor’s acts on the basis of negligent hiring and supervision. The victim can then subpoena the youth pastor’s text messages to establish the truth of her claims.
A survey of church practices, which I wrote about in the above-noted article, indicated that 81 percent of youth pastors surveyed said they engaged in one-to-one communication with youth group members at least weekly. Many did so much more frequently. This level of personal and intimate communication with minors is troubling for several reasons. Most significantly, it opens the door to an intensification of the relationship that can lead to sexual intimacy either physically or indirectly.
Allowing youth leaders to communicate with minors without any supervision or accountability is a dangerous practice. It is no different than a church’s senior pastor texting adult females in the church. In some cases, such an unrestricted practice leads to the transmission of sexually explicit text messages or images (“sexting”) using a cellphone or other electronic device.
As noted above, sexting with minors is a felony criminal offense in many states. Such messages also can be used as evidence in civil lawsuits against youth pastors by adolescents with whom they had a virtual, or physical, relationship.
For more details on the above recommendations and additional suggestions for preventing vulnerabilities in children’s and youth ministries, see “Minimizing the Risks of Child Molestation in Churches“ and “Defending Youth Ministries from 8 Critical Risks.”
State v. Mason, 2020 WL 5015903 (Tenn. App. 2020).