Youth Services Law

When Protecting Children Prompts Lawsuits

Child ProtectionA volunteer who reported child abuse to church administration in Illinois now is facing defamation charges.  The case illustrates the difficulty that organizations face in dealing with in-house reports of child abuse.   According to the Illinois Court of Appeals opinion,  a member of a Catholic parish wrote to the parish pastor, alleging that a child in the church had sexually touched another child.  The mother of the alleged perpetrator filed a discovery action against the church, seeking the name of the letter-writer and alleging that the letter was false.  According to the mother, the letter had caused her son to be ostracized in the community.  The court decided only that the mother set out a claim of defamation and that the clergy-penitent privilege did not cover the letter. 

The court’s description of the letter, however, illustrates the dilemma that faces organizations that deal with children. 

According to the opinion, the letter outlined

certain alleged improper sexual conduct, committed several years previously, by J. Doe. The writer sought guidance in how to handle the situation. The writer was a volunteer for a religious-education program conducted by the parish and had the responsibility of monitoring the children in the program. [The letter described] a potential source of risk for the parish and the children if J. Doe were to repeat such conduct while participating in the educational program offered by the parish. 

Of course, the letter was a perfectly responsible request from a program director.  If he or she had not shared his or her concerns, the allegations of past abuse had been true, and the alleged perpetrator had abused another child, then the parish certainly could have expected a lawsuit from the new victim.  In our litigious society, it seem that the best that organizations can do is choose the lawsuit that they will face.

I have never found a good solution for organizations facing this dilemma.  The best I can tell my clients is to make sure that they have good insurance and to chose the policy (and possible lawsuit) that best protects children.  At least defending that lawsuit will let them sleep at night.

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