Clergy liability for sexual misconduct

Texas Penal Code 22.011(b)(10) specifically calls out clergy as being at higher liability in cases of sexual assault.

Because of the power differential between clergy and congregant, any intimate relationship there is legally considered to be without consent. In the state of Texas, clergy who have relationships with congregants may be engaging in criminal behavior.

Protecting churches from retaliation

In May of 2019, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 4345, shielding churches and non-profits from retaliation if they give a negative but TRUE reference about the termination of an employee or volunteer. (This bill is now embodied in TX Civil Practice & Remedies Code, Sec. 84.0066.)

This bill allows churches to protect future victims by disclosing allegations of abuse, revealing to potential employers the honest facts of why someone was terminated from their position.

The former employee or volunteer has no legal ground to retaliate if the report is true. 

Churches no longer have to be muzzled by fears of lawsuits, nor must they be coerced into signing non-disclosure agreements.

Employer liability for employee misconduct

Employers — including churches — can be held legally liable for the misconduct of their employees and volunteers, especially if they are aware of the misconduct and do not take sufficient steps to protect their other employees, members, clients, or congregants. (See the Texas Supreme Court’s decisions in Houston Transit v. Felder and Painter v. Amerimex Drilling.)

Requirements for reporting abuse

Everyone is legally required to report suspected misconduct, especially when it involves children or could be criminal in nature.

In the state of Texas, Section 261.101 of the Texas Family Code requires that suspected abuse must be reported within 48 hours of becoming aware of it. Failure to report not only allows potential predators to remain free and expand their circle of victims, but is also a misdemeanor that can be punished by fines and/or imprisonment.

Silence protects the abuser, not the victim.

Fear of defamation

Churches are often silent about abuses because they fear that the accused abuser will bring a defamation lawsuit. This concern often stems from a misunderstanding of what defamation really means.

Defamation is publicizing something that is false and holding it out as truth.

The truth is an absolute defense against accusations of defamation. 

Defamation laws vary from state to state, but there are some accepted standards that make laws similar across jurisdictions. To win a defamation lawsuit, it generally must be shown that:

  • Someone made a statement;
  • That statement was published;
  • The statement caused injury;
  • The statement was false; and
  • The statement did not fall into a privileged category.

Defamation law will only consider statements defamatory if they are, in fact, false. A true statement is not considered defamation.

Reputation management for God’s people

Another reason why churches and congregations stay silent in the face of abuse is because they are concerned about protecting the name of their institution, the Christian faith, and the reputation of God Himself. 

This is a false fear.

For people of integrity, truth should matter more than appearance, and protecting the vulnerable is far more important than shielding abusers from the just and rightful consequences of their actions. 

And God—if He is who the Bible says He is—can certainly protect Himself.

See more resources here.

Photo of Waco by Jed Owen on Unsplash

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