Ethics and Legal Course: Landmark Legal Case

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Landmark Legal Case

In this paper, I am going to discuss this legal case involving a man with a mental illness that was sexually abused and manipulated by a priest with AIDS. I will describe what ACA and AMHCA ethical codes are applicable to this case. I will also explain ethical and legal implications and how this case could influence statutes in California.

Summarization of Legal Case

This case involved a man who suffered from schizophrenia and a priest who had AIDS. The priest was sued on the grounds that the mentally ill individual did not and could not consent to a sexual relationship with the defendant and therefore it could not be considered consensual (Abramson, & Gross, & Abramson, 2012). The plaintiff also alleged that the church was negligent because they knew about his relationship with the priest and the fact the priest had AIDS. He contends that the church did nothing to protect him knowing his level of mental capacity. Ultimately, this civil lawsuit was settled outside of court with the plaintiff receiving compensation, so there was not a legal ruling (Abramson, 2012).

Applicable Ethical Codes

ACA Ethical Codes

There are several codes in the ACA Code of Ethics that would be applicable to this particular case. Standard A.2.a discusses the importance of informed consent and the rights of the clients to enter and or stay in a counseling relationship (ACA, 2014). In this case, the client sought out counseling services from the priest, but was not expecting to enter into a counseling relationship where the power the priest held was abused. Also this principle was continually violated when the plaintiff would choose to leave the situation, but the priest manipulated him to return. Although the priest did eventually disclose that he had AIDS, he still took advantage of the plaintiff’s weakened mental state.

Another ethical code that was violated was A.2.d, which discusses the inability of certain populations to give consent (ACA, 2014). The biggest issue in this case is: Did the plaintiff have the capacity to consent to sexual intercourse with the priest (Abramson, 2012)? The argument could be made that the priest did not acknowledge the importance of helping develop autonomy for the client. At the very least, we know that the client was taken advantage of by the priest, and was very vulnerable to being manipulated. The client had no one to help advocate for them.

Standard A.4.a mandates that counselors avoid harming the clients (ACA, 2014). Granted counseling is different from being a priest, but certain principles are the same. Both are considered to be positions of power, and confidentiality is the cornerstone of both professions. In this case, the plaintiff was clearly harmed because he was in a prohibitive dual relationship with the priest. Along the same line of reasoning, standard A.5.a specifically prohibits sexual relationships with clients (ACA, 2014). The priest first crossed the line by engaging him in a sexual relationship with the plaintiff, especially knowing that he had a mental illness. The priest took advantage of the fact that the man operated at a disabled level (Abramson, 2012). The plaintiff relied on the priest to provide religious counseling, but was mislead into a negative dual relationship. He relied on everything the priest said because he did not have the capacity to challenge the priest.

AMHCA Ethical Code

In the AMHCA Code of Ethics, the standards under section I for dual relationships and exploitative relationships were broken. The priest recklessly disregarded the client’s welfare by engaging him in a sexual relationship and putting him at risk for contracting AIDS. He abused his position of power to psychologically manipulate the plaintiff. Under the informed consent standard, the professional is mandated to act in the client’s best interests, and the priest clearly did not do that in this case (AMHCA, 2010). The plaintiff did not know what to expect from the priest outside of religious counseling, so how could he give consent?

Ethical and Legal Implications of the Case

Ethically, there is fraud involved since the priest waiting a period of time during the relationship to disclose his medical status regarding having AIDS. Although it was acknowledged earlier that he did ultimately disclose that information to the plaintiff, he still used psychological manipulation to trick the plaintiff into believing there was no way he would contract AIDS. He took advantage of the state of the plaintiff’s mental illness because he knew that he did not have the ability to think critically and realize that the defendant was incorrect about how he could not contract the disease. During the lawsuit, one defense was made that the defendant did not conduct fraud because he really believed what he said was true. (Abramson, 2012). However, if that was the case why was no psychological evaluation done on the defendant to analyze his mental state?

Ethically, this case displays the importance of avoiding dual relationships and the harm that can result from being sexually involved with a client. It also shows how wrong it is to misuse power when a professional is in an authoritative position. Another ethical dilemma is whether the plaintiff is able to consent to sexual intercourse especially without knowing that the defendant had AIDS. It is important to acquire knowledge that he did disclose it during the relationship, but tricked the plaintiff into believing that he would not get it.

Legally, this case had serious implications on what constitutes consent, and if someone with a debilitative mental disorder is able to give valid consent. Another important issue is: Was the plaintiff able to give legal consent and not just verbal consent to sexual intercourse (Abramson, 2012). Another question relates to professional standards. Should the priest be held to the same standards as a counselor legally or is that an unfair expectation (Abramson, 2012)? Earlier in the paper, there was a discussion on similarities between the 2 professions, and the answer should be yes. To protect society as a whole, priests should legally be held to the same standards as counselors because they can impose the same type of harm. Also if the defendant (theoretically speaking) had no intention to defraud the plaintiff and he sincerely believed the stuff he said to the plaintiff during the course of the relationship would that make him and the church less liable? Should they still be held accountable for their actions regardless of the amount of harm that was caused? Honestly, the answer should be yes because the plaintiff regardless of intent the plaintiff was severely harmed.

How this Case can Impact Laws in California

This court case displays the different complex issues regarding consent and individuals that suffer from severe mental health disorders (Abramson, 2012). This case was more complicated than it looked. This case was also important because it could potentially set a precedent for priests to be held to the same legal standards as counselors. Also, how can deception be distinguished from honestly believing irrational ideas?

In conclusion, this week really tied in how ethical and legal issues might surface in real life, it was really helpful to see how legal cases affect the counseling field. The ACA and AMHCA Codes of Ethics are put in place to not only protect clients, but to protect counselors as well.


Abramson, P.R., Gross, T., & Abramson, A. (2012). Consenting to sex and severe mental illness: Terra incognita and a priest with AIDS. Retrieved from: Walden Library

N.A. (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Retrieved from:

American Mental Health Counselors Association (ACA). (2010). 2010 AMHCA code of ethics. Retrieved from:



Cite this page: Danielle Bosley, "Ethics and Legal Course: Landmark Legal Case," in, July 11, 2017, (accessed September 29, 2022).