Iowa Supreme Court Rules Christian Church Was Negligent In Sexual Abuse Cases

KNIA

“The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled on an appeal from the victims of a former pastor at Covenant Reformed Church in a civil case related to patterns of alleged sexual abuse.

Two of the women Patrick Edouard had exploited and their spouses sued Covenant Reformed in 2012 following his initial criminal conviction, and had appealed after the district court granted summary judgement in favor of the church and dismissed their claims arising from the abuse.

The plaintiffs argued the district court erred in the following ways: (1) in dismissing their general negligence claims based on First Amendment grounds, (2) in dismissing their negligent supervision claims as outside the statute of limitations, (3) in dismissing their defamation claims on various grounds, (4) in declining to apply issue preclusion, (5) in applying the clergy privilege too broadly, and (6) in ruling on numerous discovery motions.

This week, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case.

Opinion from Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Cady:

“We hold the Religion Clauses of our State and Federal Constitutions bar two of the negligence claims brought against the church, and the governing statute of limitations bars one parishioners’ claim of negligent supervision. We further hold the claims of defamation were properly dismissed by the district court. On remand, we direct the church to produce certain documents for in camera inspection by the district court.”

Edouard served as the pastor of the Covenant Reformed Church in Pella from 2003 to 2010 and had sexual relations with four women in his congregation during that time. In October 2012, he was sentenced for four counts of sexual exploitation by a counselor or therapist and one count of a pattern or practice to engage in sexual exploitation by a counselor or therapist, which upheld in 2014 by by the Iowa Supreme Court.

According to the Supreme Court document, the victims left the church after many elders did not believe they were abused, and filed suit shortly after. The plaintiffs ultimately alleged the Church and elders:
(1) negligently declined to invite mental health counselors and clergy
sexual abuse experts to work with the congregation;
(2) negligently blamed the women for their sexual exploitation, causing them severe
emotional harm;
(3) negligently investigated Edouard’s misconduct following plaintiffs’ complaints;
(4) negligently supervised and retained Edouard;
(5) made a number of defamatory statements against the two victims filing suit.

Throughout the duration of the suit, defense counsel and plaintiffs’ counsel engaged in a number of discovery disputes, resulting in the district court reviewing a significant number of documents in camera and issuing twelve separate discovery rulings. The district court issued three summary judgment orders. The first concluded the elders individually were immune from suit under Iowa Code section 504.901, which grants immunity to “a director, officer, or
member of a [nonprofit] corporation . . . for any action taken or failure to take any action in the discharge of the person’s duties,” except in four specific instances.

In the second order, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Church on the plaintiffs’ defamation claims. The court found that all but two identified statements were qualifiedly privileged and could not give rise to a defamation action. The remaining statements, the court determined, were protected opinion statements incapable of being proven true or false. Further, the court found that no statements were made with actual malice, and thus, the plaintiffs could not overcome the qualified privilege.

In the final order, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Church on all negligence claims, except the spouses’ negligent-supervision claims. The court found the First Amendment barred plaintiffs’ first two negligence claims. Next, the court found that, First Amendment concerns notwithstanding, summary judgment was appropriate for the negligent-investigation claim, as the elders accepted Edouard’s resignation within hours of hearing of the allegations. Finally, the court determined that both victims’ negligent-supervision
claims were barred by the statute of limitations, as both women were aware of Edouard’s misconduct more than two years before filing suit.”

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