Church not liable for sexual assaults committed by respected lay minister

Man was not an employee of the church, and position he held did not give a greater opportunity to commit illegal acts

Wilson v. United Church of Canada, 2005 CarswellBC 863, 2005 BCSC 564 (B.C. S.C.)

A British Columbia court has rejected a woman’s claim that the church she attended as a young girl is liable for the sexual assault committed by a lay minister.

Between 1965 and 1973 Lila Wilson was assaulted by Fred Bolton, a church elder and lay minister in Hartley Bay, a small and isolated village on the B.C. coast. In her action she said the United Church of Canada branch in the town was vicariously liable for the attacks or, alternatively, that it was negligent in not screening or supervising Bolton so he would not be in a position to harm her.

Wilson said she was assaulted by Bolton between the ages of five and 13, most often in the church, but sometimes in her home where he’d gone on the pretext of providing religious instruction. The assaults started shortly after her father and brother died in a fishing accident.

She said the assaults continued after 1971 when Bolton received a more formal status within the church which permitted him to perform marriages and baptisms. The assaults stopped when Wilson became pregnant by another man in 1973. In 1990 Bolton was convicted of indecent assault and sexual assault for his attacks on Wilson. He was sentenced to prison and died in 1994.

The British Columbia Supreme Court rejected Wilson’s claims. Bolton was never an employee of the church – he was a volunteer providing limited assistance to the ministers who visited the town about once a month. He had no physical control of church property, no control of church finances, no special access to the church building and did not have an office or private space within it. Most important, ruled the court, is that nothing in his authorized role with the church provided him a greater opportunity than any other member of the community to have close contact with children. The church did not allow him greater access to children than did his other activities such as postmaster, musical band member, sport participant, fisherman or village elder.

He may have been a lay minister and Sunday school teacher and perceived as a person deserving respect, but that does not lead to “the slippery slope of sexual abuse,” ruled the court.

It also rejected Wilson’s claim that the church was negligent. There was no evidence what the reasonable standards were from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s regarding the hiring or monitoring of someone in Bolton’s position. Without knowing an appropriate standard it isn’t possible to demonstrate a breach of duty to safeguard the community. The sparse evidence is that no reasonable investigation would have revealed that Bolton was a risk. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove negligence, and in this case Wilson had not done so, said the court.

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