Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, February 18, 2003


Page 1


Priest Not Liable for Seduction of Parishioner, C.A. Rules

First District Panel Says Pastor Has No ‘Fiduciary Duty’ to Refrain From Sex With Church Member


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A woman who claims she lost her virginity to her parish priest in the church’s rectory cannot recover damages for her resulting humiliation and mental distress, the First District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.

Richelle L., as she was identified by the court, claimed that she succumbed to advances by Rev. Felix Namocatcat because she was “deeply religious” and thus “readily subject to manipulation and control” by her priest.

Namocatcat, she alleged, had a legal duty not to exploit the “special relationship” between priest and parishioner for sexual purposes. But Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the constitutional protection of religion precludes imposition of a special duty, or a fiduciary duty, under the circumstances.

The decision affirms San Francisco Superior Court Judge William Cahill’s dismissal of Richelle L.’s suit against Namocatcat and the Archdiocese of San Francisco for failure to state a cause.

“We shall conclude that...there are circumstances in which tort liability for breach of a fiduciary duty may be imposed on a pastor for injuries resulting from the pastor’s sexual misconduct with a parishioner without offense to the religion clauses,” the presiding justice said. “We shall also conclude, however, that those circumstances are not present in this case, and for that reason affirm the judgment.”

Says Priest Lied

Richelle L. claimed she had sex with the priest because he told her that he had not been in a sexual relationship before and that it was not improper for the two of them to be romantically involved. He lied, she claimed, because he had been in a relationship with another woman in the parish, and with women in other parishes during previous assignments.

Church officials, she alleged, were well aware of the reverend’s “propensity for breaking his vows of celibacy.” She sought damages not only for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and the resulting depression and public humiliation, but also for “loss of her religious faith.”

But claims for “sexual seduction” and “illicit intercourse” are barred by California’s “anti-heart-balm” statute, Kline noted. The plaintiff, he said, “cannot prevail on her causes of action against Reverend Namocatcat unless she can establish that his alleged conduct breached a duty of care independent of the statutorily barred cause of action for seduction.”

Cases holding that doctors and lawyers may be held liable, on the basis of a special relationship, for the consequences of sexual dalliances with their patients and clients cannot be applied to the clergy, the presiding justice said.

“There is no such thing in the law as clerical malpractice,” the jurist wrote, citing Nally v. Grace Community Church (1988) 47 Cal.3d 278, which held that a church and its clergy could not be held liable for a suicide alleged to have resulted from incompetent pastoral counseling.

No Clergy Malpractice

“The fact that that no state or federal court in the United States now recognizes a cause of action for clergy malpractice...reflects widespread judicial acceptance of the Nally view that an action for clergy malpractice cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment because a standard of care and its breach could not be established without judicial determinations as to the training, skill, and standards applicable to members of the clergy in a wide array of religions holding different beliefs and practices,” Kline explained.

Kline concluded, however, that while there cannot be a “special relationship” between clergy member and parishioner, there may in some situations be a fiduciary one. Other courts are divided on that issue, the presiding justice noted.

California law, he said, permits the imposition of a tort duty on the church and clergy when this can be done without undue interference with religious practices. The case for protecting parishioners from sexual exploitation, is at least as strong as that for allowing suit for the use of psychologically coercive recruitment techniques, which the California Supreme Court has done, Kline said.

“Unlike a church’s recruitment practices, a pastor’s sexual misconduct is not likely to be defended on the basis of any sincerely held religious belief or practice,” he wrote.  “...Moreover, the sexual exploitation of parishioners by pastors with whom they have a confidential relation poses a threat to public safety, peace or order that is seemingly as substantial as that posed by deceptive religious recruitment practices, and the state possesses at least as compelling an interest in discouraging such exploitation. “

Thus, Kline explained, a clergy member might be held liable for engaging in sex with a parishioner who came to him for counseling, or for taking advantage of someone who was in a weak physical or emotional state. But the plaintiff’s religiosity alone cannot be the basis for imposing a fiduciary duty on her pastor not to seduce her, Kline said, because such a claim “could not be adjudicated without reference to the nature of her religious beliefs and the doctrines of her church.”

The case is Richelle L. v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco, 03 S.O.S. 842.


Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company