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Passing on the Pastor: Sexual Abuse and Public Statements About Ministerial Qualifications

passing the pastorIf a religious organization believes that a minister or other employee has engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior, what is the responsibility to notify others? How does child sexual abuse change the rules for normal termination procedure? Those who become victims of that person insist it is the organization’s duty to share that information. Employees who have been terminated for such behavior say sharing such information is a breach of confidence amounting to defamation. These tough questions were addressed in a recent unpublished Minnesota appellate case, John Doe 169 v. Brandon et al. (May 28, 2013).

Brandon was an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God from 1993 to 2006. Ordination was handled by the district council, though the council was not responsible for any supervision or control of local churches.

In the 1990s, Brandon was employed at a church as a youth minister. He had sleepovers for male teens, gave back and leg rubs, and insisted that a particular boy sleep in his bed (apparently with no sexual contact). Eventually he was terminated for this behavior. He was given a letter outlining concerns with the inappropriate friendships with teen boys and told to present it to future employers (which he never did). In 1999, Brandon applied for a job at the Emmanuel Christian Center (ECC) of the Assemblies of God. The ECC knew about the letter, but never saw the letter, and did not hire Brandon. But for the next 7 years, Brandon volunteered with the ECC youth-ministry program, and progressively was given more responsibility. His ordination credentials helped him to get this volunteer work.

The senior pastor of Brandon’s previous church knew about this volunteer work. Brandon maintained his minister credentials until 2006, and indeed, his previous senior pastor, who was by then working in a role with the district council, signed off on Brandon’s credential applications for 2004 and 2005.

In 2005 and 2006, Brandon sexually abused a teen boy and eventually pleaded guilty to criminal charges. In the civil lawsuit, the boy sued the church district council, with claims of negligence. Initially, the district court granted the district council’s motion for summary judgment, finding it had no duty to the boy.

The appellate court reversed. It held there was a question of fact as to whether the senior pastor’s knowledge about Brandon could be imputed to the district council. The court determined it was a matter for the jury to decide as to whether Brandon’s sexual abuse was a foreseeable harm, based on what the district council knew about Brandon’s past through the senior pastor.  The court also held that there would be no First Amendment entanglement issues in dealing with the district council’s certification of Brandon or discipline of him, or lack thereof, finding the question could be resolved on neutral principles.

This is a troubling case for churches and religious organizations, as it expands negligence for not sharing information about employees or former employees who have engaged in inappropriate behavior far beyond what employers usually expect. It seems to say an obligation to share information about inappropriate behavior is different in the narrow context of child sexual abuse. Even in this case, the court may have interpreted the responsibility narrowly within the denomination, as the original church, the ECC, and the district council were all Assemblies of God.

In the religious context, and for discipline of clergy or members, there are strong defenses against defamation lawsuits. It will be difficult to determine when information should be shared and how much, as organizations thread between the Scylla and Charybdis of defamation liability and sexual abuse lawsuits. A religious organization faced with such a dilemma will want to discuss these issues with an attorney experienced with the sexual abuse lawsuits and religious privileges.

Disclamer: not official legal advice

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