March 11, 2019
by John Kaempf

National churches have a much stronger basis to be dismissed from a child sex abuse case based on the conduct of pastors or other local church agents, even if a local congregation faces liability. This is because of principles of agency law recognized even in anti-church states like Oregon.

Unfortunately, many churches and religious schools are facing multi-million dollar lawsuits based on child sex abuse that allegedly occurred, often decades ago, involving ministers, teachers, or other agents. But while the local church may face liability in such cases, national churches often have a complete defense based on principles of agency law. A corporate defendant is typically not vicariously liable for intentional torts like sexual battery of a child. But even in the few states where such vicarious liability is allowed, including Oregon, recent appellate cases restrict that liability to the conduct of paid employees. When a volunteer “nonemployee agent” commits child abuse, Oregon law holds that a corporate defendant is not vicariously liable unless it controlled or later approved the “specific injury causing conduct in particular.” That obviously rarely, if ever, includes child sex abuse. That is the holding of the Oregon Supreme Court in a 2012 case, Eads v. Borman.

Also, the 2015 decision of the Oregon Court of Appeals in Scheffel v. Oregon Beta Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity supports the ability of a national church to be dismissed from a sex assault case involving misconduct at a local congregation. In Scheffel, the plaintiff was raped by a member of the local Beta chapter of the defendant fraternity at Oregon State University during a Halloween party it hosted. She sued the Beta chapter and the national organization, Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity “Phi Psi.” Ms. Scheffel “asserted a claim against Phi Psi on the theory that Phi Psi was vicariously liable as the chapter’s principal.” Like a national church, “Phi Psi is headquartered in Indiana and has about 100 local chapters nationwide.” Ms. Scheffel argued that Phi Psi was vicariously liable for her rape because, like many national churches, “its governing documents, including its Constitution and bylaws, grant the national organization the power to create, suspend, revoke local charters, and the power to suspend, expel, or otherwise discipline any fraternity member.” But the trial court and the Oregon Court of Appeals rejected her argument, and granted Phi Psi’s motion for summary judgment. Phi Psi noted that it “did not have the requisite right to control the conduct of the Beta chapter that was asserted as the basis for plaintiff’s claims.” The court held that “as for plaintiff’s claims against Phi Psi, we conclude that summary judgment was appropriate.” So, Phi Psi was dismissed from the case before trial.

Therefore, a national church should not always think “we” have a problem as the result of child sex abuse at a local congregation. This is because a national church can often be dismissed if it did not have knowledge of and was not involved in the claimed abuse by a local church volunteer or other agent. In such cases, any responsibility should be solely that of the local church. Also, even local churches are typically not vicariously liable for sex abuse committed by a volunteer.

Moreover, the applicable statute of limitations should be kept in mind as a possible complete defense to child sex abuse lawsuits based on alleged abuse decades ago. Both local churches and national churches, and all religious schools, can rely on this defense.