Does a Synagogue Owe a Duty to Warn its Congregants About a Predator?

Does a Synagogue Owe a Duty to Warn its Congregants About a Predator?

Today’s post involves a very sensitive topic, one that inflames emotions within the Jewish community and beyond.  My goal here is to simply present the legal issues, and not endorse any viewpoint or offend anyone.

I was recently asked: Does a synagogue (or other house of worship) owe a duty to warn its congregants about a child predator who is present among the congregation?

The 2015 case of Conti v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York (235 Cal.App.4th 1214) is the most recent case to deal with this issue.

As a young girl, Candace Conti was assaulted by a church leader named Jonathan Kendrick.  Some of these assaults occurred during church-endorsed “field services” where members distributed literature door to door in the neighborhood.

Candace sued the church and the national umbrella organization associated with it.  She argued that 1) the church had a duty to warn its congregants that Kendrick was a known-molester, and that its failure to do so was negligent.  During trial, evidence was presented that the church was previously informed of Kendrick’s proclivities.

Candace also argued that 2) the church was negligent in failing to supervise Kendrick during the field service activities.

After prevailing on both theories in the trial court, the Court of Appeal ruled that the church did not owe a duty to warn its congregants about Kendrick’s behavior.

The Court reasoned that as a general rule, there is no duty for one person to control the conduct of another.  California cases have consistently ruled that absent a special relationship, there is no duty or obligation for one person to warn another about a predator or other dangerous criminal.

What is an example of a “special relationship”?  Some examples from California cases include school groups; relatives; or other extra-curricular activities like the Boy Scouts.

The Court here noted that the burden of requiring a church or house of worship to warn its congregation might lead to overly burdensome restrictions.

Quoting the Court, “Would the duty to warn be triggered by an accusation, or only and admission of misconduct?  Would one warning be sufficient, or would continuous warnings be required to ensure that the congregation members are alerted to the danger?  Besides for child molestation, which other potential harms would the church have a duty to avert?” [Id. at 1228]

Answering Candace’s first argument, the Court ruled that no, a church does not owe a duty to warn its congregants.

Turning to the next argument, the Court agreed with Candace that the church’s failure to supervise Kendrick during field service activities was negligent.

Field service activities involved a special relationship between the participants and the church, as the activities were officially sanctioned events.  The church exerted control over these activities such that a special relationship existed.  The church’s failure to supervise Kendrick was indeed negligent.

Based on this recent case, we can likely answer the above question.  No, a synagogue does not owe a duty to warn its congregants about a child predator.

However, if the synagogue offers officially sanctioned services, like field activities or the like, a special relationship might be found.  This would likely impose a duty to keep a known-predator away from children and supervised at all times.

Is it still the right thing to do for a synagogue to warn its congregation despite the absence of a legal requirement to do so?

The law does not require a warning to be given.  If a synagogue chooses to do so, it would be going beyond the letter of the law and could use this warning as proof it is taking proper precautions.

And many would argue, this is the right thing to do.