Minor May Sue Church For Fiduciary Breach Jehovah's Witness Clergy Accused Of Sex Abuse By Lisa K. Bruno A Jehovah's Witness church could be sued for breaching its fiduciary duty to a minor who claimed she was sexually molested by one of the church's ministerial servants during Bible study sessions, a Superior Court judge has ruled. The defendants argued that no Massachusetts court had ever found a fiduciary duty running from a church to its congregants. But Judge Herman J. Smith Jr. denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment, stating no rule precluded a trial on the issue. "This court believes that a jury could find that the defendants owed a fiduciary duty to the plaintiffs in this case, based on the [defendants'] position of trust in the [plaintiffs'] home and church, especially the position of power they wielded over the young [minor]," the judge stated. The 19-page decision is Beal, et al. v. Broadard, et al., Lawyers Weekly No. 12-028-05. New Context Stephen M. Born of Boston, who together with Robert B. Huntington represented the plaintiffs, noted that the issue of a church's fiduciary duty to its congregants was a matter of first impression in Massachusetts. "It is very important, and to me obvious, that clergy members owe a duty towards congregants in the sense that the relationship is one of trust and confidence," he said. Born observed there was a history and tradition of finding fiduciary duties in the context of financial responsibilities. "You have a fiduciary duty running to lawyers and accountants," he remarked. "That is all the more reason why it should run to children, who are particularly vulnerable, in the case of clergy members." Pointing to a federal case that had touched upon the issue, but had been reluctant to "blaze new trails," Huntington noted that the decision did not view the absence of precedent as a reason for declining to address the question and subsequently finding that a fiduciary relationship potentially existed. Born added, however, that by dismissing all counts against the church's center of operations and authority located in New York, the decision left the plaintiffs with "an empty shell." "These congregations are unincorporated associations," Born explained. "It's unclear whether they can even be sued or whether they have any assets." Observing the centralized structure of the Jehovah Witnesses' church, he maintained that knowledge held by a church elder was attributable to the principal. "In this case they promoted this fellow who was the molester to a position of ministerial servant, and they could not do that without the approval and review of the authority in New York," Born said.
Joseph M. Desmond of Boston, counsel to the defendants, stated there was no prior notice of the defendant's sexual propensities and disagreed with the ruling to the extent that it did not dismiss the counts against all the defendants.
"The absence of notice in this case, as the court found with respect to Watchtower [Bible and Tract Society of New York], needs to be a central principle in establishing any tort, whether it be breach of fiduciary duty or straight negligence," he said.
Notice had to be "part and parcel" of any claim of breach of fiduciary duty, Desmond added, "otherwise you have essentially a strict liability theory based upon a religious organization's affiliation with some parishioner."
Abuse Of Minor Alleged
The plaintiff was a minor who alleged that between the ages of 9 and 11, the defendant Ronald Broadard, her second cousin, sexually molested her during Bible study sessions in her home.
During the time in question, the child's mother worshiped as a member of the Ashmont Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and the defendant acted as a ministerial servant with the Columbus Park Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.
William Broadard, Ronald's father, was an elder of the Columbus Park congregation and was serving as such when the body of elders appointed his son as a ministerial servant.
Following the period of alleged molestation, the child was admitted to various Boston area mental health facilities and also received treatment in several residential treatment programs in Boston.
After learning of the alleged molestation in August 2000, the minor's parents filed suit on their daughter's behalf against Ronald Broadard, William Broadard, the two congregations and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York.
The plaintiffs' complaint charged the defendants with negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, deceit, sexual assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy.
In response, all the defendants, with the exception of Ronald Broadard, moved for summary judgment on each count.
Position Of Trust
While Smith agreed with the defendants that no Massachusetts court had ever found a fiduciary duty running from a church to its congregation, he observed no rule precluded a trial on the question of whether one could be found under the circumstances presented by the case.
Turning to other jurisdictions for guidance, the judge took note of cases that equated the relationship between a priest and parishioner to the doctor-patient or attorney-client relationship.
On the evidence presented in the present case, Smith reasoned, a jury could conclude that the plaintiffs likewise placed their trust in their ministers and raised their child to obey the Jehovah's Witnesses' faith and its ministers. In particular, he noted that William Broadard's relationship with the plaintiffs went beyond that of an ordinary clergy-parishioner relationship in that he was related to the plaintiffs and knew them personally.
"This special relationship between the Broadards and the Beals bears noting because it distinguishes the Beals' claim of breach of fiduciary duty based on the violation of a duty of loyalty and honesty, form one of ordinary 'clergy malpractice' based on violation of professional standards," Smith specified.
The judge acknowledged that courts struggled with the First Amendment implications inherent in defining professional standards for clergy, which involved measuring religious standards against some objective standard.
"However, in this case, the alleged breach is wholly separate from the substance of any religious beliefs, and a trial on the merits should not require the litigation of specific beliefs or tenets of the Jehovah's Witness faith," he continued.
The fact that the Broadards occupied a unique position of trust in the plaintiffs' household, together with the existence of a clergy-congregant relationship, supported the plaintiffs' allegations that a fiduciary relationship arose, Smith concluded.
"No Massachusetts case requires this court to rule, ab initio, that the degree of trust, confidence and faith placed in a minister's hands under facts like these, fails to equal, as a matter of law, that placed in the hands of an attorney or physician," he added.
The judge entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant Watchtower, finding no evidence tied the New York organization to any actions by or on behalf the remaining defendants.
Similarly, Smith dismissed the remaining claims asserted against Watchtower, based on the lack of any evidence showing that it knew of or could have prevented the Broadards' conduct.
However, on the plaintiffs' claim of negligence, he found that the remaining defendants voluntarily undertook to provide the plaintiffs with private religious instruction in their home.
"[O]rdinary negligence principles dictate that where a church or its agent assumes the care and control of an individual for Bible study or other ministerial or religious purposes, and that individual relies on the instructor's status of good standing within her church, the church must reasonably guard against the agent's foreseeable criminal acts," he stated.
Finding that the defendants had knowledge of Ronald Broadard's prior incidents of sexual dangerousness, Smith concluded that the risk of injury to the child was within the realm of foreseeable consequences.
On the claim of deceit, under which the plaintiffs claimed that the defendants intentionally concealed their knowledge of Ronald Broadard's tendencies towards abuse of minors, the judge found that the defendants' representations of fitness could be construed as representations of fact and that the claim was strong enough to survive summary judgment.
On the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, Smith observed that although the moving defendants never directed any extreme or outrageous conduct towards the minor, whether they acted recklessly and indifferently to the likely effect of their conduct was a question for the jury. He rejected the defendants' contention that a trial on this count would involve a review of ecclesiastical procedure, noting that "the plaintiffs find fault with the defendants' conduct, not their belief."
Smith ruled the plaintiff parents could not recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress, having learned of the alleged harm to their daughter some considerable time after it occurred, but held that the minor's claim survived.
He dismissed the count of sexual assault and battery, which the plaintiffs sought to impute to the moving defendants on a theory of vicarious liability, declaring that no rational jury could conclude that sexual assaults were committed in the scope of employment or in furtherance of the congregations.
Similarly, Smith dismissed the plaintiffs' claim of civil conspiracy, stating that while certain triable issues existed as to the defendants' negligence, "no rational person could infer that anyone substantially assisted Ronald Broadard towards a common plan to sexually assault [the child]."