Most local churches are separately incorporated.  Each denomination exercises a unique level of control and supervision of their local churches that ranges from virtually none to substantial oversight.  In those denominations that exercise substantial oversight, liability for the actions of the local church or parachurch organization might exist if the denomination was deliberately indifferent to those actions.

In Buettner-Haratsoe v Baltimore Lutheran High School Association, et al, Memorandum Opinion (D. Maryland, 2021) the federal trial court denied motions to dismiss allegations the church school and the denominational supervisory body failed or refused to control sexual harassment and abuse of minor female students by other students on campus as well as off.  Social media, of course, was a major culprit but sexual assault and battery was alleged as well.  The culture of the high school was characterized by the Plaintiffs as “hyper-sexualized.”  One male student was prosecuted and pled out.  The denomination sent a crisis management team to the school to try to address the allegations.  The Plaintiffs alleged the crisis management team’s actual agenda was to squelch faculty complaints and the Plaintiffs’ allegations rather than take any action to remediate the situation.  The trial court held “deliberate indifference,” an element of federal statutory discrimination claims, in this instance Title IX, sufficiently alleged against both the local church school and the denomination.  The trial court held that none of the allegations required inquiry into any “ecclesiastical controversy.”  The case will proceed through discovery and possibly future motions for summary judgment or trial.

If the allegations had sufficient credibility, due to numerosity if nothing else, to warrant dispatch of a special team to conduct onsite situational evaluations, the denomination should have dispatched qualified investigators, too.  Qualified investigators should have included, for example, retired or former law enforcement officers and attorneys qualified to conduct such investigations.  Each complaining student should have been interviewed on the record.  Each faculty member that claimed to observe anything or to be the recipient of a complaint from one of the female students should have been interviewed on the record.  Some of the complaints might have triggered state mandatory child abuse reporting statutes.  Reasonable actions should have been designed based on the investigations and may have included student disciplinary actions as well as employee disciplinary actions.  Local churches and denominational supervisory bodies that fail to make a record of duly diligent inquiry risk more than is risked by making a wrong decision about what to do about it.

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