How long does a denomination or local church have to investigate sexual misconduct allegations against personnel? Most governing documents that address the question, and most are actually altogether silent or do not differentiate such allegations from other matters of discipline, do not set a time limit on investigations or discipline. Stated another way, must the duration of such an investigation be “reasonable?”
In Taylor v Evangelical Covenant Church, 2022 IL App (1st) 210524, Slip Op., the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case with prejudice was affirmed. The Plaintiff was suspended by the denomination from pastoral duties in 2017 pending investigation of a sexual misconduct claim alleged to have arisen in the 1970s. The defendant denomination licensed pastors and had the authority to suspend them. The defendant denomination investigated during 2017 – 2018 and reinstated Plaintiff’s licensure but did not reinstall him in another local church as pastor by the time suit was filed in 2020. In the interim the local church that previously employed Plaintiff hired a replacement. The Plaintiff alleged the denomination violated its governing documents by “keeping Plaintiff in a suspended status for an unreasonably lengthy period.” The appellate court determined that the substance of Plaintiff’s pled claims related to “internal matters of church governance and discipline” including the claim about undue or unjust delay. Therefore, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine precluded court review.
The governing documents need not set time limits on investigations, discipline, or any other matter of internal church governance. Indeed, it is probably better that they do not. The actual procedures the denomination used on the fifty year old sexual misconduct allegation were not set forth in the opinion. Nor was there any report of whether the investigation found the allegations credible. The reinstatement of the licensure of the Plaintiff seemed to indicate the allegations were not found credible. That the Plaintiff had not be reinstalled as a church pastor may or may not indicate anything other than supply and demand given the lack of specifics in the opinion.