Church Liability for Sexual Misconduct

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Can I Sue a Church?

In the past, the First Amendment freedom of religion provision and charitable immunity protected churches from lawsuits.  However, the current trend is that in many states, you may sue a church based on normal tort principles, including negligence.

What is Negligent Hiring?

The principle behind negligent hiring is that employers must take responsibility for harm created by hiring someone improper.  When a job brings an employee into contact with the public in a special relationship, the employer has a duty to conduct an investigation into the employee's work experience, background, character, and qualifications.  For an employer to be liable, you must show:

What is Negligent Retention and Supervision?

Employers may also be liable if they retain employees who commit wrongs against other people if they know, or should know, that the employee does those things.  The employer has a duty to protect people from harm from recurring behavior of an employee.  Similarly, an employer is liable if he fails to adequately supervise an employee who commits wrongs against other people, and the employer knows, or should know, about this past behavior.

How Does This Apply to Sexual Misconduct by Clergy?

If a clergy member engages in sexual misconduct, the church may be liable if the injured person can show that the church should have known that the clergy member may have done such an act in advance.  For example, there may be a prior criminal record, past accusations, or record of mental disease.  You must also show that the church is the controlling organization by citing rules or doctrine that show an agency relationship with the clergy member and the church.  

What Exceptions Are There?

If the clergy member's inappropriate activity was an independent act outside of the church and church activities, the church cannot be liable.  Also, if there was no way the church could have found out through investigation that the clergy member was a potential sex offender, the church cannot be liable.

Should I Contact a Lawyer About Suing a Church?

If you are a victim of clergy abuse, in addition to possible criminal charges, you may be able to bring a civil lawsuit for damages against the church for negligent hiring, retention, or supervision.  Because of the complicated and evolving nature of this field of law, a personal injury lawyer can help advise and represent you.

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Last Modified: 11-30-2011 04:26 PM PST

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