A study published in the November 2013 edition of Christianity Today states that the number one reason churches get sued is claims involving the alleged sexual abuse of a minor. (This is followed by insurance coverage disputes, religious freedom disputes, property disputes, and personal injury disputes, in that order.)
This is particularly true in Oregon, which has some of the most pro-plaintiff laws in the country concerning a religious organization’s direct and vicarious liability for the abuse of a child by an employee.
Also, pursuant to Oregon Revised Statutes 12.117, Oregon allows alleged child abuse victims to sue until just before their 40th birthdays. This extended statute of limitations also allows child abuse lawsuits to be filed decades after a plaintiff turns 40 if they can show repressed memories of the abuse.
The wide degree to which Oregon law allows a religious organization to be held vicariously liable for child abuse by an employee was confirmed this year in the case of Schmidt v. Slader, 263 Oregon Court of Appeals 197 (2014).
In Schmidt, the plaintiff alleged that he was sexually abused by a priest, Father Frank, in the 1950s, when plaintiff was seven or eight years old. Plaintiff sued the Archdiocese of Portland in 2002, about 50 years later. Plaintiff testified that beginning in 1999, he remembered roller skating with several friends and his siblings near St. Mary’s Church in the town of Mt. Angel. According to plaintiff, he fell down and scraped his knees, and Frank, who was wearing his robes, offered to help him. Frank helped plaintiff into the basement of the church, sat him on a table, and violently sodomized him. Id. at 199, n. 3. Continue reading
Religious schools periodically decide to expel a student for misconduct in the middle of a school year or to not re-enroll a student for the next school year. Parents and students sometimes respond with the threat of a lawsuit if the student is expelled. Religious schools facing this scenario should realize that they have much greater authority to expel a student than a public school, and, therefore, any such claim can be defeated.
First, the free exercise of religion provisions of the United States and Oregon Constitutions allow religious schools to make these decisions free of court interference if they are based at least in part on religious doctrine. Continue reading
In 1999, the Oregon Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that made Oregon one of the few states that allow an employer to be held vicariously liable for an employee abusing a child. Fearing v. Bucher, 328 Oregon Supreme Court 367 (1999). This ruling was followed by a flood of child abuse lawsuits that resulted in the bankruptcy of the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland in the 2000s given that it could be held liable for child abuse by priests it employed. The Fearing case, which involved alleged child abuse by a priest, remains the law in Oregon as to an “employee”
of a defendant.
Moreover, Oregon’s child abuse statute of limitations was amended in 2009 to grant an alleged child abuse victim an automatic right to file a civil lawsuit until they reach 40 years of age. (Oregon Revised Statutes 12.117) Continue reading
Religious schools and churches periodically terminate or discipline a teacher or other employee who violated tenets of the religion at issue, such as premarital cohabitation. Employers taking such actions have a complete defense to discrimination claims arising from such decisions based on the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the corresponding provisions of the Oregon Constitution.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Article 1, Section 3 of the Oregon Constitution states: “No law shall in any case whatever control the free exercise, and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience.” Continue reading