Mental fitness for ministry is often a key focus of a religious organization’s hiring process, particularly for positions of high stress or great responsibility. When can performing these evaluations—or failing to perform them—lead to liability? Some courts have held churches liable when they have conducted these evaluations, learned certain information, and then failed to take steps to prevent foreseeable harm.1 But can liability arise for failing to do an evaluation in the first place? A recent case from Connecticut explores whether ecclesiastical abstention limits how far liability may go for failing to adequately evaluate the mental health of a minister.
Roy v. Norwich Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp.: The Facts
The case involved a claim by a plaintiff who alleged he was sexually abused by a priest when he was a child. He brought a myriad of claims against the Church Defendants (collectively, “the Church”) that employed the priest. Some claims specifically focused on the failure of the Church to initially, and periodically, properly evaluate the mental fitness of the priest to serve in his role in the Church. Others included the failure of the Church to properly supervise and train the priest on how to appropriately interact with children in the parish, its failure to protect children in the ministry, and its lack of a child safety policy. And, among other things, the plaintiff wanted to be compensated for spiritual injuries, alleging the abuse caused him to experience “spiritual loss, substantially affecting his belief in his faith.”2
The Church moved to dismiss, arguing that certain claims involved “matters of religious doctrine and church governance, and that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over such matters under the first amendment . . . .”3
Ecclesiastical Abstention Bars Some, but Not All Claims
The Court discussed ecclesiastical abstention and how litigation of some of the claims would clearly “impermissibly entangle the court in matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.”4 Barred claims included those that focused on the Church’s failure to properly evaluate the mental fitness of the priest, both in the first instance, and periodically. The Court also noted that the spiritual loss injury was not something that the Court could adjudicate.
The remaining claims, however, the Court concluded could be resolved by neutral principles, meaning their resolution would not necessarily require the Court to use religious standards. These claims included the negligent supervision and training claims, as well as the claim that the Church should have had a proper child safety policy. Because they could be decided using neutral, secular legal principles, those claims could go forward.
Take-Aways from the Case
While this case does not have any binding precedential effect, it is a useful illustration of the church autonomy doctrine. Under this case, the doctrine requiring courts to stay out of the internal workings of the church probably prevents asking whether a religious organization has done a proper mental fitness evaluation. The Court did not explain its logic in much detail, but suggested that the argument that the Church breached its duty to conduct a mental fitness evaluation to determine if the candidate was qualified for the duties of a priest would impermissibly entangle the court in matters of faith. For example, how would a court determine what mental characteristics or traits would disqualify someone from being a good candidate for a priest position? The Court implied that such a task could not be accomplished looking only to neutral principles, but would, instead, require examination of what it means to qualify to be a Catholic priest, a task civil courts do not do.
However, the Court did allow the case to move forward on the issues of whether the Church had properly supervised and trained the priest in the context of work with children. This aligns with cases from other jurisdictions that have focused more on negligent supervision and training than the initial decision to hire. So what the organization does in reaction to a mental fitness evaluation may be even more important than whether it performs one in the first instance. This is because liability normally only attaches to an organization to the extent it knew or should have known of the harm that could come from, for example, its employee interacting with children.
Finally, note that this case did not speak to whether a fitness for duty evaluation or initial mental fitness exam was properly performed. This case did not say anything about whether actually performing these exams runs afoul of the ADA or raises other legal issues. This challenge was not by a person being evaluated, but by an alleged victim of tortious conduct by the organization’s employee. Any mental fitness evaluation should be done with care and in accordance with applicable laws.