By Victor Ochieng
For more than 10 years, s*xual abuse against minors remained atop the reasons why churches were dragged to court. Church Law & Tax (CLT) reported that s*xual cases made more than 1 out of every 9 lawsuits that involved churches.
Times have changed and things are different now. Last year, the number one reason why churches were going to court was property disputes. More churches filed in the corridors of justice in 2016 over issues relating to their church buildings more than any other form of abuse in the places of worship.
According to the CLT, up to 8.7% of all court cases involving churches last year were linked to property disagreements, which was actually 1.5% less than what was reported the year before. Still, property cases remained top due to the fact that child abuse cases had gone lower, settling at 8.3% in 2016 from 11.7% the previous year.
“There were fewer child abuse cases during 2016 than in prior years,” said CLT senior editor Richard Hammar, an attorney and CPA specialized in legal challenges relating to churches and the clergy. “Child abuse claims are dropping, but it is impossible to say if this an anomaly or a consequence of better risk management.”
The drop in child s*x abuse cases must have been due to the courts’ enormous efforts in clearing the backlog of lawsuits that had stayed too long in the courts.
“New suits are only likely to be for recent abuse situations—and heightened awareness in churches of the problem has hopefully reduced the number of new cases,” said Howard Friedman, a law professor and church-state expert who steers the Religion Clause.
Friedman’s blog has been tracking property disputes involving churches and government officials, church neighbors or their internal disagreements, some of which lead to splits in congregations.
A majority of property lawsuits “seem to arise from factional disputes between conservative and progressive wings of congregations,” said Friedman. “The increasingly divisive culture wars have moved into churches.”
Some of the high profile cases include that of a local Minnesota congregation, in which an appeals court ruled in April that it could keep their church even after splitting from the Presbyterian Church (USA). Last year, a court ruled that the Episcopal Church was still the rightful owner of a property of a breakaway Diocese that took up another name after becoming Anglican.
Among the top cases are insurance, personal injury, and zoning. Combined, these cases accounted for about one-third of all church cases last year.
It was in 2013 when cases relating to child abuse represented 1 in every 7 church cases.