Sex With The Priest – No Breach of Fiduciary Duty

If a priest has sexual relations with a congregant, can the congregant assert some claim of breach of fiduciary duty against the priest?

Last year the Court of Appeals in Marmelstein v Kehillat New Hempstead: The Rav Aron Jofen Community Synagogue, 11 NY3d 15 [2008], stated that in order for the congregant to demonstrate the existence of a fiduciary duty:

a congregant must set forth facts and circumstances in the complaint demonstrating that the congregant became uniquely vulnerable and incapable of self-protection regarding the matter at issue (Marmelstein, 11 NY3d at 22).

And that such a fiduciary relationship must exhibit the characteristics of:

de facto control and dominance (Marmelstein, 11 NY3d at 21).

Last week the Court of Appeal was faced with another breach of fiduciary claim by a congregant  in Doe v Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, 2009 NY Slip Op 02264.  In this most recent case, the plaintiff was a congregant of a Catholic Church, where the defendant Father Peter DeBellis was a priest.  The plaintiff alleged that in November 2000, she began counseling with Father DeBellis.  She then alleged that soon after counseling started, they began a sexual relationship that lasted for more than three years. Both the counseling and the sexual relationship allegedly continued despite repeated complaints to the Diocese by plaintiff’s husband, and DeBellis’s subsequent transfer to another church. Both the plaintiff and her husband commenced an action asserting a breach of fiduciary duty claim against Father DeBellis, and claims for negligent supervision and retention against the Diocese.

The Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims finding their allegations insufficient to state a claim for breach of fiduciary duty.  The Court stated:

The bare allegation that [plaintiff] was “a vulnerable congregant” is insufficient to establish that plaintiff was particularly susceptible to Father DeBellis’s influence. Nor does the complaint provide any other allegations to show that the parties had a relationship characterized by control and dominance.

Since the breach of fiduciary claim against the priest failed, the Court also dismissed the claims for negligent supervision and retention asserted against the Diocese.

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