Thursday, February 19, 2009

Church liability for acts of individual members

Last week a woman in Florida filed a lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, alleging that the church was liable for the death of her 20-year-old son. The lawsuit alleged that the young man committed suicide after two Scientologists convinced his father, also a Scientologist, to take away the son's anti-depressants. It now appears very unlikely that the case will go to trial; police reports released this week apparently refute most or all of those claims. But it caught my attention because similar liability claims have been made against the LDS Church, alleging that the Church was liable for the wrongful acts of its individual members.

Since most churches are operated by professional clergy, most lawsuits against denominations are based on the actions of ordained clergy. The Mormon Church differs in that it employs virtually no clergy on the congregational level, relying instead on a "lay clergy." So while some Mormon leaders (such as bishops or stake presidents) could clearly be seen as agents of the Church, most of the congregation are not church agents, despite the various tasks or responsibilities to which they may have been assigned.

Like the recent Scientology lawsuit, there have been several lawsuits against the LDS Church in the past 20 years that claimed the Church was liable for the actions of its members. The most serious of these cases alleged sexual abuse by members of Mormon congregations. Some of these lawsuits also included liability incurred by church agents (i.e., bishops), but they have also allege that the LDS Church was liable for the abuse committed by one of its members.

As a matter of policy, I think no religious group should be liable for the wrongful acts of its members unless those individuals could be said to be agents of the denomination. But some courts have held just that. In a highly-publicized 2005 lawsuit in Washington State, the Mormon Church was found liable for the actions of a man who sexually abused his two step-daughters. But on appeal before the Washington Court of Appeals, that portion of the jury verdict was reversed and the Church was held not to be financially responsible for the step-father's liability.

Court still seem to be struggling with the difference between clergy members and parishioners in the Mormon Church. Part of this may be due to the practice of a lay clergy. A bishop may clearly be an agent of the Church, but what about and Elders' Quorum president? A home teacher? A Sunday School teacher? I also think this confusion is due in part to an unfamiliarity with the structure of Mormon congregations. It would be hard to imagine a similar ruling against a Catholic Diocese or a Protestant congregation because more judges and juries are familiar with the structure of those organizations.