Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

High Court of New York Affirms Dismissal of Complaint Focused on Sexual Relationship Occurring during Pastoral Counseling; Ruling Not Disturbed

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

High Court of New York Affirms Dismissal of Complaint Focused on Sexual Relationship Occurring during Pastoral Counseling; Ruling Not Disturbed

Article excerpt

A married couple obtained individual counseling services from their church pastor. In the course of this counseling, the wife and the pastor developed a sexual relationship that lasted several months. After the husband discovered the affair, the couple filed a suit against the pastor and the church for sexual battery (for unwanted touching) and for clergy malpractice stemming from a breach of fiduciary duties. Because the pastor was not licensed as a professional counselor, a complaint could not be filed with a licensing body. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that the lawsuit could not be pursued.

The battery action could not prevail, the court held, because the evidence established that the sexual relationship between the wife and the pastor was consensual. The court noted (1) the wife initiated discussions concerning her attraction to the pastor, (2) e-mails exchanged expressed a shared affection, and (3) the wife sent these e-mails to the church congregation after the affair was discovered to show the relationship was "very mutual." The court added that the record did not establish that the wife's physical or emotional condition or prescribed medication impaired her ability to consent to physical contact with the pastor.

As for the clergy malpractice claim, the court determined that the complaint failed to indicate the nature of the alleged fiduciary breach. Also, exploring an alleged fiduciary duty would improperly require the courts to examine ecclesiastical doctrine in an effort to determine the standard of care owed to parishioners undergoing ministerial counseling. …

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