A jury says an Ohio church should pay $3.6 million to a woman who was sexually assaulted as a teenager by her then pastor.
The Delaware County jury on Monday found that one or more employees of Grace Brethren Church of Delaware, Ohio, was negligent in supporting Brian L. Williams' hiring and retention as senior pastor of Sunbury Grace Brethren Church, where he sexually assaulted the woman in 2008, according to court documents. Delaware Grace failed to properly investigate and document earlier incidents of sexually inappropriate behavior allegedly committed by Williams, the jury concluded, which allowed him to be "empowered to a greater responsibility" as senior pastor of Sunbury Grace.
"Brian Williams employment at Delaware Grace Brethren Church ended in 2004," wrote Delaware Grace's pastor, Gary Underwood, in a statement. "We were shocked when we heard of his criminal actions in March of 2008. However, we could never have foreseen Brian's crimes, and our church had nothing to do with his crimes.
"We accept the jury's verdict, but respectfully disagree with their decision. We will continue to pray for [the victim] and her family."
The lawsuit says Williams was a youth and associate pastor at Delaware Grace from 1988 through 2004. Prior to his becoming the senior pastor of Sunbury Grace around September 2004, the complaint states, Delaware Grace was aware of at least two incidents in which he had "engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with females" while serving as youth pastor.
After becoming a senior pastor, the document says, he continued to receive financial support, guidance and supervision from Delaware Grace.
Then, during a counseling session in 2008, Williams sexually assaulted the woman. He later pled guilty to two counts of sexual battery in Delaware County Common Pleas Court, and was subsequently sentenced to eight years in prison.
In addition to the amount awarded to the woman, the jury also said the defendant should pay her father damages in the amount of $75,000.
"I think the decision was entirely appropriate and warranted by the evidence," the plaintiff's attorney, John K. Fitch, told The Christian Post. "Our case was largely based on admissions from church officials, the defendant church officials, about what had taken place."
But W. Charles Curley, attorney for the church, says the damages awarded by the jury are "shockingly high and not consistent with the evidence presented at trial."
Curley says he will challenge the amount awarded to the woman under a state statute that allows for a maximum of only $250,000 in "noneconomic damages" to be awarded per plaintiff. If the judge decides the statute applies in this case, Fitch says he intends to challenge the constitutionality of the damages cap.