The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case in which two women are suing a Pella church for failing to supervise a pastor who sexually exploited them.
The Bandstra family argues they should be allowed to sue the Board of Elders of the Covenant Reformed Church for negligent supervision and defamation.
Valerie and Anne Bandstra say statements from the church board accused them of adultery for their sexual contact with former pastor Patrick Edouard, who was convicted of four counts of sexual exploitation by a counselor in 2012.
Attorney Roxanne Conlin says the church board allowed the pastor to counsel women behind a locked door for many years.
“They have some obligation—particularly given the fact that this is not an uncommon thing to have happen—to find out what their pastor is doing in his basement,” Conlin says. “And they took no steps at all to do that.”
Attorney Michael Thrall says the religious freedom clause of the U.S. Constitution bars any claims that the church board did not properly handle the situation. He says that would lead the court to make judgments about how the church views sin, repentance and forgiveness.
“And those issues can’t be resolved outside the context of the doctrines of the church—what they believe, what the elders believe—and I think all of those things implicate First Amendment issues that the court historically has avoided,” Thrall says.
He also says the lawsuit was brought too late for it to be valid.
Conlin says Edouard was a highly respected pastor, and her client knew others in the church wouldn’t believe her claims.
“And we see example, after example, after example of women coming forward today whose assault took place decades ago and who did not come forward because they would not have been believed,” Conlin says.
It will likely be several weeks before the Supreme Court reaches a decision on this case.