Two men can't sue church over sex abuse

Trenton, New Jersey USA

Tuesday, April 6, 1999

By BARBARA FITZGERALD
The Associated Press

TRENTON -- Two adult males who alleged they were sexually abused as teenagers by a former Presbyterian youth minister have no right to sue the local church and its hierarchy because of the state's charitable immunity law, an appeals court ruled Monday.

Thomas S. Race and Herbert W. Haderer Jr. sued the national Presbyterian Church, the church's synod of the Northeast, the Presbytery of Elizabeth, and the Presbyterian Church at Pluckemin claiming they had been repeatedly sexually abused by their Presbyterian youth minister, Jeffrey Cheseboro.

A lower court dismissed the case against the church defendants saying that they were afforded charitable immunity under state law. In a ruling released Monday, an appellate panel concurred.

"People don't realize this but if you send your child to a church-affiliated nursery school and they are abused by the teacher, the only cause of action you have is against the abuser itself. The church is immune," said John Thatcher, who represented Race and Haderer in the case.

The way the law works, Thatcher said, if you are a member of a church and slip and fall on the stairs, you have no right to sue the church because you are a beneficiary of the church's "charitable purposes." A stranger, or non-member, can bring a case, the courts have found.

In this case, Race and Haderer were members of the church and beneficiaries of its charitable purposes.

"Others must reconcile the issues of moral responsibility," the appeals court said. "If there are policy reasons for changing the law, they be must addressed by the Legislature, not this court."

In 1995, lawmakers did amend the charitable liabilities law. They said that trustees, directors, officers, employees, agents, servants, or volunteers of charitable organizations were not granted immunity if they committed an act of sexual assault and other crimes of a sexual nature.

"However, the Legislature declined to remove the cloak of immunity from the individual's charitable organization," the appellate court decision pointed out.

Kevin Coakley, an attorney for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., said the state's charitable liability law makes sense.

"If a perpetrator is acting outside the scope of employment by the charity, he is certainly not carrying out the charity's wishes," Coakley said.

Coakley said he was not surprised by the ruling Monday, adding that case law on the subject already had been established.

The state's highest court ruled that the survivors of a boy who was sexually assaulted by a Catholic school instructor who also was a Scoutmaster could not sue the Diocese of Newark after the boy committed suicide.

"It's been almost 20 years since [that] . . . case and sexual abuse is getting worse, not better," Thatcher said. "The law was upheld by the thinnest of margins the last time the Supreme Court heard this, maybe it should hear this again."

Thatcher said he had not spoken with his clients about Monday's ruling, adding he did not know yet whether they would ask for an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Race alleged when he was between the ages of 11 and 14 -- approximately from 1976 to 1980 -- Cheseboro, who was then the church's youth fellowship leader, "committed various acts of sexual abuse against him."

Race introduced Haderer to Cheseboro when Haderer was in the seventh grade and Haderer alleges that Cheseboro also committed acts of sexual abuse against him.

Although the teens had a full recollection of the abuse, they did not disclose it to anyone at that time, court papers said.

According to court files, Haderer was eventually married by Cheseboro in 1990 to his wife, Kelly. Four years into his marriage, Haderer finally told his wife about the abuse.

The men filed a complaint with the church, which held a disciplinary hearing on the matter in 1994. Rather than seek an internal church trial on the matter, Cheseboro resigned and renounced his jurisdiction with the church.

"After Cheseboro resigned, plaintiffs received no offers of help from the church, either in the way of reimbursement for costs, psychological counseling, or spiritual help," according to court records.

In February 1995, the men, who are now in their mid-thirties, filed a lawsuit against Cheseboro and the church.

The men sued the church claiming the conduct by the church was "against the charitable objectives they were organized to advance."

But the appellate court found that "the courts are unable to engage in the evaluation of the church's doctrines and policies and whether they were breached."

Contact Governor Christine Todd Whitman

PO Box 001
Trenton, NJ 08625
(609) 292-6000.... FAX (609) 292-3454

New Jersey Office of Legislative Services


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