Defamation of Pastors

A Louisiana court issues an important decision-Steed v. St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1999 WL 92626 (La. App. 1999)

Church Law and Tax1999-05-01

Defamation of Pastors

A Louisiana court issues an important decision-Steed v. St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1999 WL 92626 (La. App. 1999) [Defamation, The Civil Rights Act of 1964]

Article summary. While the law allows pastors to sue parishioners or employees for defamation, it makes it difficult for them to do so. As “public figures,” they must be prepared to tolerate criticism and even false allegations. Only when those allegations are made maliciously can they sue for defamation. A Louisiana court ruled that a pastor could sue a former employee for defaming him by spreading false allegations of sexual misconduct. It concluded that she had acted with malice, and ordered her to pay him $90,000 in damages. The court also rejected the woman’s sexual harassment claims under state and federal law.

Imagine the pastor of your church being accused of sexual harassment of an employee. The pastor insists that he is innocent, and is cleared by a denominational board of inquiry. The congregation becomes aware of the allegations, and this results in a drastic decline in attendance and finances. The woman is interviewed by two local television stations, and a newspaper, and makes damaging allegations against the pastor. The pastor is forced to move to another city amidst the turmoil. What options does the pastor have in such a tragic scenario? Can he sue the former employee for defamation? That was the question addressed by a Louisiana state appeals court in a recent decision. This article will review the facts of the case, summarize the court’s ruling, and assess the significance of the case to other churches and clergy.

Facts

A woman (the “defendant”) was employed as choir director by a Methodist church. Shortly after she came to work, she claimed that the pastor started hugging her. At first the hugs seemed innocent, but they soon became lingering and made her uncomfortable. The hugs allegedly occurred in the pastor’s office and would often occur after staff meetings. She wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and at first did not think anything was wrong. On one occasion the pastor came into the choir room and seemed visibly upset. She asked him what was wrong, and when he did not answer her, she put her hands on his shoulders and asked again. According to the defendant, the pastor then grabbed her around the waist, pulled her close to him, and tried to kiss her on her lips. She reportedly turned her head, at which time he kissed her hard on the cheek. She tried to pull away, and he let her go when he heard the organist coming into the room. Later, he asked the defendant if she thought the organist had seen them. The defendant replied no, and told him never to touch her again.

The defendant also testified that there were times when the pastor attempted to grab or touch her in the hall, in the sanctuary, and near the door of the lobby. She stated that on numerous occasions the pastor would tell her not to tell anyone about the incidents. He also frequently quizzed her about whom she had told. When asking these questions, the pastor would either grab her by the arm or block her exit from the office. The defendant reported that she told her husband, and then told the pastor that if he did not stop touching her and talking about the incidents, she would tell his wife and denominational officials (the district superintendent and bishop). She assured him that if he would quit talking about it, she would let the matter drop.

The defendant claimed that the pastor continued to badger her, so she told the organist, a church member, and the pastor-parish relations committee (which functioned as the church board). The defendant then met with the chairman of the pastor-parish relations committee to discuss the situation. According to her, the chairman acknowledged that the pastor had “a thing going on” with her, but that it was harmless. She claimed that she was never asked out on a date, never asked to have sex, and never propositioned in any way.

For his part, the pastor asserted that he first became aware of the accusations when the defendant was in his office and told him that she thought he was “making a play” for her. He closed the office door (after asking her permission) and asked if she was joking. When told she was not, the pastor informed her that she was obviously misinterpreting his actions, and that he was a happily married man and was not interested in her in that way. The pastor claimed that their next conversation occurred in the choir room. As he turned to leave he reached for her and she told him not to touch her. He later called her into his office, where she again accused him of making a play for her and informed him that she had told her husband. Later that week, the pastor called the defendant’s husband to tell him that nothing had happened. The husband later testified that the pastor had called to apologize for his actions. The pastor steadfastly denied all allegations of wrongful conduct.

The pastor-parish relations committee began discussing the defendant’s allegations. The only corroborating evidence she presented was the testimony of a person who had borrowed substantial amounts of money from the defendant and her husband on an interest-free basis, and who had purchased a car from them and instead of paying for it, worked it off through yard work. The pastor-parish relations committee proposed various solutions to the problem, all of which were rejected by both the defendant and pastor. The defendant would not accept any solution that did not involve counseling and a full acknowledgment by the pastor of his guilt before the pastor-parish relations committee, while the pastor refused to attend any counseling or admit to any wrongdoing. During this time the congregation began hearing about the accusations, and rumors started spreading. In an attempt to defuse the rumors, the pastor-parish relations committee read a statement to the congregation to the effect that the defendant had made allegations against the pastor, that the pastor-parish relations committee had conducted an investigation, and that there was no factual support for the allegations.

The defendant later filed a formal complaint with the district superintendent, who directed the complaint to be resolved by a “board of ordained ministers” pursuant to Methodist practice. She later withdrew her complaint since she was not allowed to have an attorney present or to call witnesses. The superintendent directed the board to resolve the complaint, and it later issued a statement after considering all the evidence that the pastor had been exonerated.

Church attendance, membership, and financial support to the church plummeted as a result of the defendant’s allegations. The bishop stepped in, transferred the pastor to a church in another part of the state, and appointed a new pastor for the church. The new pastor accepted the appointment on the condition that he could hire his own staff. As a result, the PPR terminated the entire staff, many of whom were later rehired by the new pastor. The defendant, however, was not rehired. Several pastor-parish relations committee members testified that the defendant’s allegations about the former pastor had nothing to do with her termination.

The defendant later sued the former pastor, her church, and state and national Methodist bodies alleging discrimination in employment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and sex discrimination and retaliatory discharge under state law. After filing her lawsuit, the defendant discussed her claims on two local television stations and a newspaper. A year later, the pastor sued the defendant for defamation of character.

The trial court dismissed the state and national church bodies because they were not the defendant’s employer as required by state and federal sexual discrimination statutes. The case went to a jury which dismissed the Title VII sex discrimination claim since the church had fewer than 15 employees (Title VII prohibits employers with 15 or more employees, and engaged in interstate commerce, from engaging in sex discrimination in employment decisions). The jury also dismissed the defendant’s sex discrimination claims against the pastor, since only employers can be sued under state and federal discrimination statutes. It dismissed the sex discrimination claims under state law against the church, and found the defendant liable for defaming the pastor. It ordered her to pay him $90,000 in damages. The defendant appealed.

The Court’s Ruling

Defamation

The appeals court only addressed the trial court’s defamation award in favor of the pastor. It began its opinion by noting that in order for ministers to win a defamation claim, they must prove the public and malicious disclosure of false allegations, resulting in an injury to reputation. The court defined “malice” as “the lack of reasonable belief in the truth of the words.” However, when words accuse a person of criminal conduct, they are presumed to be false and malicious, and defamation is assumed.

The court noted that

the record amply supports the finding that [the defendant’s] words were defamatory. [The pastor’s] reputation was diminished to the point that he was transferred from [his church] and in fact relocated in the southeast portion of the state, an extraordinary move necessary to distance him from the scandal. A rational juror could find, more probably than not, that his reputation, and his ability to serve as a minister in north Louisiana, were damaged by [the defendant’s] accusations. Moreover, [her] charges that [he] grabbed her, tried to kiss her, and physically blocked her from leaving his office, amount to accusations of at least simple battery. Additionally, by accusing him of sexual harassment, [the defendant] launched allegations which by their nature tended to injure his personal and professional reputation.

Even though malice was assumed because the defendant accused the pastor of criminal behavior, the court noted that the defendant’s own testimony provided additional proof of malice. Specifically, she admitted in court that when she told the television reporters that the pastor had grabbed her thigh, she was incorrect. Further, “the general absence of evidence to support her allegations could persuade a rational juror that [she] had no reasonable belief that her statements were true.”

Privilege

The defendant insisted that her statements could not be defamatory because they were privileged. The court acknowledged that “privilege is one of the defenses to a defamation suit.” In this case, the defendant claimed the “qualified privilege” that applies “when a statement is made in good faith, on a subject matter in which the person communicating it has an interest … to a person having a corresponding interest.” As an example of this privilege the court referred to “communications between appropriate persons within the employer’s walls, concerning allegations of conduct by an employee that bears on the employer’s interest.” This often is referred to as the “common interest” privilege. It is a “qualified” privilege rather than an absolute privilege, since it only applies if the person making the statements does so in good faith. The court noted that good faith exists “if the person making the statements had reasonable grounds for believing that the statements were true and he honestly believed them to be true.”

The defendant insisted that she made the statements in good faith, that she had an interest in reporting the pastor’s alleged sexual harassment, and that the people to whom she reported (members of the pastor-parish relations committee) had a duty to her as an employee and to the church to deal with ministers who engaged in sexual harassment. The court disagreed, noting that

with all the evidence in this record, the jury was not plainly wrong to conclude that [the defendant] was not in good faith. There was conflicting testimony regarding whether or not any sexual harassment had occurred; notably, [the defendant] admitted that her televised accusation was false. [The pastor] denied each and every accusation. The jury was entitled to find the evidence of [the pastor] more credible, and that of [the defendant] and her only corroborating witness … less so. In view of the conflicting evidence, this privilege does not apply.

Amount of Damages

The defendant asserted on appeal that the jury’s verdict of $90,000 was excessive. The pastor responded that the amount was inadequate. The court noted that in a defamation case a jury can award damages based on injury to reputation, personal humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, anxiety, and hurt feelings. In addition, a jury can award damages based on a loss of income. The court noted that several denominational officials testified that the pastor’s reputation had suffered because of the woman’s allegations. They pointed to the fact that he had to be transferred to a church in another part of the state. As a result,

it was reasonable for the jury to find that [the pastor’s] general reputation was injured by the allegations. [He] testified that due to the transfer his salary was reduced by $18,000 per year. The record clearly shows that [he] has suffered extreme embarrassment, humiliation, and loss of reputation from his fellow ministers and family, that he was transferred due in part to the accusations, and that he has suffered a loss of income due to the transfer. It was not manifestly erroneous for the jury to award [him] a lump sum of $90,000 in damages for his loss of reputation, his embarrassment and humiliation, and his loss of income.

Homeowner’s Insurance

The defendant’s homeowner’s insurance carrier refused to provide her with a legal defense, or pay any portion of the $90,000 verdict. It based its position on the policy’s exclusion of “bodily injury or property damage … intended by the insured.” The court noted that “insurance policies should be construed to effect, not deny, coverage,” and that “an exclusion from coverage should be narrowly construed.” The court concluded that the plain language of the exclusion restricted it to “injuries which were intended” rather than to “injuries from an intended act.” It concluded that the exclusion did apply, because the defendant clearly intended to injure the pastor:

[The defendant] made allegations that [the pastor], a married minister, was sexually harassing her. She repeated these allegations to various members of the congregation, reported them to [the pastor’s] supervisors, and instituted an interview which led to the airing of these allegations over two television stations … and a newspaper. Notably, when [the pastor-parish relations committee] attempted to resolve this situation, [the defendant] refused to accept any solution which did not include [the pastor’s] attending counseling and admitting … that he had sexually harassed her. Additionally, when asked about these statements [she] testified that she intended to accuse [him] of sexual harassment and that she was aware that his reputation would suffer. In sum, by making and repeating allegations of sexual harassment against a Methodist minister, [the defendant] either knew that [he] would suffer humiliation, loss of reputation, and a job transfer, or was substantially certain that these damages would follow. As such, she intended the accusations and the injuries; thus, the intentional act exclusion in her homeowner’s policy applies.

Relevance of the case to other churches and ministers

What is the relevance of this ruling to other churches? Obviously, a decision by a Louisiana appeals court is of limited significance since it has no direct or binding effect in any other state. Nevertheless, there are a number of aspects to the ruling that will be instructive to church leaders in every state. Consider the following:

1. Defamation-in general. The court noted that it is more difficult for “public figures,” including pastors, to establish defamation. There is a simple reason for this. Public figures, by assuming highly visible and prominent positions, must assume that they will be the subject of discussion, criticism, and even false allegations. As a result, they cannot be defamed, like ordinary citizens, by false statements that tend to injure their reputation. They also must prove that the person making the false statement did so maliciously. In this context, malice means that the person making the false statement either knew that the statement was false, or made it with a reckless disregard for its truth or falsity. This is a very difficult standard to meet. But this case illustrates that it is not impossible. The court concluded that the defendant acted maliciously when she made false statements about the pastor, and it based this conclusion on “the general absence of evidence to support her allegations” which “could persuade a rational juror that [she] had no reasonable belief that her statements were true.”

Note that persons who are not public figures do not have to prove malice in order to win a defamation claim. They need only prove that another person made a false statement about them, the false statement was “published,” and it injured their reputation.

Elements of Defamation Non-public FigurePublic Figure

(1) Oral or written statement(1) Oral or written statement
(2) Concerning another person(2) Concerning another person
(3) The statement is false(3) The statement is false
(4) The statement is publicized (made public through communication to other persons)(4) The statement is publicized (made public through communication to other persons)
(5) Injury to the defamed person’s reputation(5) Injury to the defamed person’s reputation
(6) The person making the defamatory statement did so with “malice,” meaning that he or she either knew the statement was false, or made it with a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity

2. Defamation – statements concerning criminal activity. When words accuse a person of criminal conduct, they are presumed to be false and malicious, and defamation is assumed. In this case, the woman accused the pastor of various acts of hugging, touching, and fondling – all of which amount to the crime of “simple battery.” As a result, the defendant’s words were presumed to be false and malicious. This presumption can be overcome through opposing evidence, but the court concluded that the defendant failed to produce sufficient evidence to overcome the presumption.

Key point. When persons make allegations of sexual misconduct against a pastor or other church worker, they often are alleging behavior that constitutes a crime under state law. Such accusations are so serious that the law creates a presumption that they are false and malicious, and defamation is assumed, unless the person making them “rebuts” the presumption of defamation by producing evidence to support the charges. As a result, persons should refrain from making charges of criminal misconduct against other church members or staff unless they have evidence that supports their allegations.

Example. Two female church employees accuse their pastor or sexual harassment. The alleged harassment included numerous acts of inappropriate and unwelcome touching and hugging. The women submit their accusations to their church board. They support their charges with the testimony of two other church employees who witnessed the pastor engaging in some of the inappropriate acts. The women’s accusations, if true, would mean that the pastor committed the crime of simple battery. As a result, in many states their accusations are presumed to be false and malicious, and defamation is assumed. However, they can rebut this presumption through evidence that substantiates their charges. In this case, they will meet that burden. Not only are there two victims whose testimony is mutually corroborative, but there are two additional witnesses who observed the pastor engaging in some of the inappropriate behavior.

Example. A mother informs her pastor and members of the church board that a volunteer youth worker sexually molested her son during an overnight church activity. The youth worker threatens to sue the mother for defamation. There were no witnesses to the alleged incident; however, the mother took her son to a physician who confirmed that sexual molestation had occurred. The women’s accusations, if true, would mean that the youth worker committed a crime (aggravated child molestation) under state law. As a result, in many states the mother’s accusations are presumed to be false and malicious, and defamation is assumed. However, she can rebut this presumption through evidence that substantiates her charges. In this case, she probably will meet that burden through her physician’s testimony.

3. Privileges to defamation. There are a number of privileges to defamation. A privileged statement is not defamatory. Some privileges are absolute, including statements that are truthful, or that are made before a court or legislature. Other privileges are qualified, meaning that they are subject to some exception or limitation. This case illustrates one example of a qualified privilege-statements concerning matters of common interest. Most courts have recognized that persons with a common interest in information about another person should be free to share information about that person without fear of being liable for defamation. But this privilege is not absolute. It only applies if the person making the allegedly defamatory statement does so in “good faith.” This means that the “the person making the statements had reasonable grounds for believing that the statements were true and he honestly believed them to be true.” Other courts simply say that the privilege can be lost if the person making a statement concerning a matter of common interest does so with malice. This is another way of saying that the person making the statement did not do so in good faith. Once again, malice in the context of defamation means that the person making the statement either knew that it was false, or made it with a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity.

The defendant made a plausible claim that she disclosed information about the pastor’s alleged acts of sexual harassment to members of the pastor-parish relations committee because they had a legitimate interest in learning about such information. The court rejected this argument, and as a result concluded that the defendant’s remarks were not privileged. It based this conclusion in part on the false statement (“the pastor grabbed my thigh”) the defendant made in her television and newspaper interviews, and which she later admitted was false.

4. Proving a sexual harassment claim. Claims of sexual harassment often are difficult to resolve, because the evidence is conflicting. This case is illustrative. The evidence submitted by the parties is summarized in the following table:

Evidence Supporting the DefendantEvidence Supporting the Pastor
Her own testimonyHis own testimony
The testimony of an alleged witnessThe defendant’s witness was not credible, since he had received preferential financial treatment from the defendant
The defendant made a statement (the pastor grabbed her thigh) in television and newspaper interviews that she later admitted was false
A denominational “board of ordained ministers” investigated the defendant’s charges, and exonerated the pastor
A jury did not accept the defendant’s accusations of sexual harassment

5. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employers with 15 or more employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of sex. Sexual harassment is a form of prohibited sex discrimination. The defendant claimed that the pastor’s behavior amounted to sexual harassment for which her employing church was liable under Title VII. The court dismissed this claim on the ground that the church employed fewer than 15 persons and so was not subject to Title VII.

6. Reducing the risk of similar claims. The effects of the defendant’s allegations were dramatic. Her allegations soon were spread throughout the congregation, resulting in a drastic decline in attendance and revenue. In addition, the church board had to call a meeting of the congregation to confront the matter, and the accused pastor was unceremoniously replaced and transferred to another part of the state. While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of such an ordeal, the good news is that church leaders can take steps to reduce the risk. Consider the following two suggestions:

#1 – Adopt a Sexual Harassment Policy

As we have pointed out in previous issues of this newsletter, it is very important for any church having employees to adopt a sexual harassment policy. Such a policy has a number of significant advantages. First, it will reduce the likelihood of such claims. Why is this so? Because a properly drafted policy will provide employees and employers with a definition of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is more likely to flourish where employees and employers lack a clear understanding of what it means. By clearly defining the term in a policy, employees will be effectively warned against behaviors, however “innocent,” that cross the line. And, employers will be better informed about behavior that is inappropriate. In summary, a properly drafted sexual harassment policy can be an effective tool in reducing the risk of sexual harassment, and the turmoil that often is associated with such claims.

Second, a sexual harassment policy will provide a church with a potent legal defense in the event of a sexual harassment claim.

Here is a list of some of the terms that should be incorporated into a written sexual harassment policy:

  • Define sexual harassment (both quid pro quo and hostile environment) and state unequivocally that it will not be tolerated and that it will be the basis for immediate discipline (up to and including dismissal).
  • Contain a procedure for filing complaints of harassment with the employer.
  • Encourage victims to report incidents of harassment.
  • Assure employees that complaints will be investigated promptly.
  • Assure employees that they will not suffer retaliation for filing a complaint.
  • Discuss the discipline applicable to persons who violate the policy.
  • Assure the confidentiality of all complaints.

In addition to implementing a written sexual harassment policy, a church should also take the following steps:

  • Communicate the written policy to all workers.
  • Investigate all complaints immediately. Some courts have commented on the reluctance expressed by some male supervisors in investigating claims of sexual harassment. To illustrate, a federal appeals court observed: “Because women are disproportionately the victims of rape and sexual assault, women have a stronger incentive to be concerned with sexual behavior. Women who are victims of mild forms of sexual harassment may understandably worry whether a harasser’s conduct is merely a prelude to violent sexual assault. Men, who are rarely victims of sexual assault, may view sexual conduct in a vacuum without a full appreciation of the social setting or the underlying threat of violence that a woman may perceive.”
  • Discipline employees who are found guilty of harassment. However, be careful not to administer discipline without adequate proof of harassment. Discipline not involving dismissal should be accompanied by a warning that any future incidents of harassment will not be tolerated and may result in immediate dismissal.
  • Follow up by periodically asking the victim if there have been any further incidents of harassment.

Key point. EEOC guidelines contain the following language: “Prevention is the best tool for the elimination of sexual harassment. An employer should take all steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring, such as affirmatively raising the subject, expressing strong disapproval, developing appropriate sanctions, informing employees of their right to raise and how to raise the issue of harassment under Title VII, and developing methods to sensitize all concerned.”

Key point. The assistance of an attorney is vital in the drafting of a sexual harassment policy.

#2 – boundaries

Clergy and lay staff should understand the importance of establishing and honoring “boundaries” in their interactions with minors as well as members of the opposite sex. Boundaries not only reduce the risk of inappropriate behavior, but just as importantly they reduce the risk of false allegations which can be devastating to an innocent person. We have discussed appropriate boundaries on several occasions in this newsletter. Listed below are examples of boundaries that have been adopted by some churches. You may want to consider adopting some of them:

  • Only permit opposite sex counseling by clergy if a third person is present. The third person can be the pastor’s spouse, a staff member, board member, or some other person who is capable of maintaining confidences.
  • Only permit counseling of minors by clergy and lay employees and volunteers if a third person is present. The third person can be the counselor’s spouse, a staff member, board member, or some other person who is capable of maintaining confidences.
  • Require a third person to be present for any pastoral counseling occurring off of church premises. For example, if a woman calls the pastor at 3 AM and asks him to come to her apartment for counseling, the pastor can only go if a third person comes along.
  • Permit counseling to occur on church premises only during office hours when other staff are present and visible (through a window or doorway).
  • Require a third person to be present for any pastoral counseling occurring on church premises after hours and on weekends, or at any other time when there are not staff members who are present and visible during the counseling session.
  • Limit counseling sessions to a reasonable amount of time, such as 45 minutes.
  • Limit the number of counseling sessions with the same person to a reasonable number, such as 4 or 5 during the same calendar year.
  • Adopt a policy requiring women to be counseled by women.
  • Install a video camera in the pastor’s office, or wherever counseling occurs, that provides a video feed (not audio) to a terminal at another staff member’s desk. The staff member is instructed to remain at the desk throughout the counseling session, and to frequently monitor the screen. Alternatively, the counseling session can be recorded on video tape (without audio), and later played back in fast forward by a staff member who then prepares and signs a dated memorandum acknowledging that no inappropriate behavior was observed.

Churches that want to implement any one or more of these suggestions should do so by adopting an official policy through appropriate action of the board. This will remove any element of discretion. When a person calls the pastor and asks for counseling off of church premises, the pastor can simply respond that he or she is prohibited by church policy from accommodating the person without the presence of a third person.

© Copyright 1999 by Church Law & Tax Report. All rights reserved. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Church Law & Tax Report, PO Box 1098, Matthews, NC 28106. Reference Code: m53 c0399

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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