CHURCH POLICIES AND PROCEDURES AS A BASIS FOR FRAUD CLAIMS

In our report immediately prior to this one, the allegation in the case reported was that breach of the policies of the denomination or church by the church was a tort compensable in damages.  Generally, tort claims are “wrongful acts” that are committed negligently.  Intentional torts are generally those wrongful acts that are intentionally undertaken with the intent to injure, financially or physically, the damaged claimant.

In John Doe v Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas, Slip Op. (Tex. Civ. App. 2021) the Plaintiff’s claim was that the Defendant committed “fraud by not following its internal policies for responding to sexual abuse after he reported he was sexually abused… .”  The trial court held that the internal policies for responding to sexual abuse were “so integrally related to …dogma that it comprises part of the … religious representations, beliefs and teachings.”  Therefore, the trial court dismissed the claim pursuant to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  The appellate court affirmed the trial court.  The appellate court held that an inquiry into whether the church violated its own policies “necessarily [required a] reach behind the ecclesiastical curtain.”  The appellate court held that an allegation that the church violated its own policy by mishandling its internal investigation of the allegation was such an inquiry.  The appellate court held that the allegation that the church violated its own policy by misinforming congregants of the investigation or its outcome was such a claim.

Internal church governance, its practices and procedures, are often of late the subject of claims.  The damages claimed range from defamation to failure to protect from a sexual predator.  There is no credible doubt that policies, practices and procedures of churches and denominations are driven by or drafted in conformity with religious beliefs.  Therefore, interpretation and compliance by a church or denomination with its policies or procedures will be driven by the same religious beliefs.  Nevertheless, churches and denominations should not consider the ecclesiastical barrier impenetrable.  Mandatory child sexual abuse reporting statutes in most states, for example, may not tolerate contrary church policies and procedures.  In any event, major decisions by leadership that are driven by church policies and procedures, especially those derived from religious beliefs, should be documented and the applicable policy or procedure annotated in the documentation.

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