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Minister Ruled Exempt in Sex-Harassment Suit

Courts: Because they're not licensed therapists, clergy are protected. Plaintiff had seen pastor for marriage counseling.

April 02, 2002|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Orange pastor accused of making sexual advances to a woman who turned to him for marriage counseling cannot be sued in civil court because he is not a licensed counselor, a California appellate court ruled.

The decision, released Friday, affirms a state law that exempts the clergy from civil lawsuits involving advice they give to those who seek their counsel. The law was intended to encourage people to confide in the clergy in a setting not bound by codes of professional conduct.

The case centers on Orlando Barela, a pastor at the Household of Faith Family Church. Barela is a well-known figure in Orange because he escaped gang life to become a Christian leader.

The woman, whose name is not contained in court records, said she and her husband were members of the church for about a year when they sought Barela's help for their troubled marriage.

She alleged in her lawsuit that Barela expressed a sexual interest in her during several sessions--but only after sending her husband out of the room.

Once they were alone, the woman claimed, the pastor hugged, kissed and fondled her and boasted he could please her more than her husband.

Barela strongly denies the accusations, though he declined through his attorney to comment on the case Monday.

The woman said she complained about Barela's behavior but was told by church elders to leave the congregation.

She and her husband ultimately divorced, and she sued the church and the pastor for negligence, emotional distress, sexual harassment and sexual battery. The 4th District Court of Appeal did not render a decision on the woman's accusations. But even if events occurred as she said, the court concluded that her claims did not amount to sexual harassment. "He hugged and kissed her.... She 'half-resisted' by putting her hand on his chest," the opinion stated. "She told him she was afraid they would be caught."

Such conduct on the part of a licensed marriage counselor or therapist would violate state law, the court said. But state law exempts the clergy.

"Morally reprehensible as Orlando's advances [would be] under the subterfuge of marital counseling, his status as a pastor/counselor does not, under the law, bestow upon him any duty beyond that of the ordinary lay person," the court wrote in its opinion.

Michael A. Byrne, lawyer for the church, said Barela and church officials were pleased by the ruling.

"It's been a long and difficult trial for both sides," Byrne said. "The pastor and his wife were very pleased to hear the news."

The woman's lawyer, Philip DeLuca, said he might appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.

"What it's doing is holding this religious leader in a preferred position in our society," DeLuca said.

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