(CN) - A Mormon bishop who failed to consult a church-sponsored helpline for a sexually abused teen cannot be held liable, the Utah Supreme Court ruled.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints established a 1-800 number in 1995 exclusively for clergy members to call and get legal and counseling advice if they become aware of possible abuse.
Between the ages of 12 and 15, Kareena MacGregor was regularly sexually touched by a neighbor four years her senior, Matthew.
MacGregor also became sexually involved with Matthew's brother, Gregory, who was two years older than she was. At age 15, she gave birth to Gregory's baby at home. The baby died after she put him in a window well.
During these years, MacGregor claims she confided in her bishop, Douglas Walker, on two occasions - although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints disputes this claim.
MacGregor allegedly told Walker that she wanted her relationship with Matthew to end, and that she wanted to repent. She never told him about her relationship with Gregory.
Walker told her to pray, and stop seeing Matthew, MacGregor says, but he never used the church's 24-hour helpline for priests to determine whether he was required to report the sexual abuse of a minor.
In a civil case, MacGregor claims that the church voluntarily assumed a duty of care for its parishioners by establishing the helpline, a duty that Walker violated.
A judge in Salt Lake ruled for the church, however, and the Utah Supreme Court ruled affirmed Tuesday.
"The church's creation of the Help Line did not give rise to a duty to MacGregor because, regardless of whether the church undertook to render a service to MacGregor by virtue of the help line, the existence of the help line did not increase her risk of harm," Justice Jill Parrish wrote for the five-judge panel. "The risk MacGregor faced was the same as that she would have faced had the church never created the help line. And the imposition of a duty based solely on the creation of the help line would be contrary to public policy because it would discourage organizations from providing such services."
Holding the church liable for its lack of action in this case would discourage the creation of programs by nongovernment actors that might prevent abuse and assist victims, the court found.
"Moreover, we must be even more sensitive when assessing a religious organization's internal policies," Parrish wrote. "Because imposing a duty on the church in this case would be contrary to public policy, we decline to do so."
The Supreme Court's decision did not reach the issue of whether the church is immune from tort liability under the First Amendment.
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