Church should pay for its negligence

A store owner whose negligence results in a customer breaking his back in a fall and never being able to work again is in the wrong both legally and morally.

What about church officials who do nothing about a pastor accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls, then find he has raped a 15-year-old? How wrong are they?

No more than the store owner, under Ohio law.

Ohio Supreme Court justices have had to hand down a ruling about which even those in agreement had to hold their noses. The 3-2 decision involved a civil lawsuit against officials of Sunbury Grace Baptist Church in Delaware County.

Church officials failed to do anything about former Rev. Brian L. Williams, even after they heard he had been accused of sexual misconduct with girls. That gave Williams the freedom he used in 2008 to rape another girl, then 15.

Williams went to prison. Church officials lost a lawsuit based on their negligence. A jury decided the girl was due $3.5 million in damages for her pain and suffering.

She received just $250,000. That was because of a state law, enacted in 2005 as part of a tort reform initiative. The idea was to curb wildly extravagant pain-and-suffering awards in most civil lawsuits.

But legislators and then-Gov. Bob Taft had in mind lawsuits over unintentional, relatively minor, unintentional misconduct.  Unfortunately, they failed in drafting and approving the law to differentiate between garden-variety failures and those that, in effect, aid and abet dangerous criminals.

So when the high court decided the rape victim’s appeal, it had no choice but to note the statute’s unambiguous language and inform the now-adult victim she could collect only $250,000 for a lifetime of very real pain and suffering.

Rewriting the law to stipulate a difference between unintentional negligence and intentional acts such as enabling a rapist should not be difficult. Leaders in the General Assembly should make it a priority for 2017.

For now, their error was much the same as the store owner’s cited above. It was a mistake.

Leaving the law in place as written, however, would be equivalent to what the church officials did — misconduct with clear knowledge of the potential consequences.

COMMENTS