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Personal Injuries - Part 4

On Church Property or During Church Activities

Can a youth pastor be sued for publicizing information regarding an alleged illicit affair between an associate minister and a church employee? Yes, concluded a Maryland state court. The employee had been raised in the church, and had been active in church work. When she became old enough, she volunteered to work with the church youth group, and with a traveling drama group. The drama group was under the direction of the associate pastor, with whom the employee worked very closely. She accompanied the group for four months each year as a counselor. When she graduated from college, she was hired by the church as the associate director of youth ministry (a salaried position). Because she continued to work with the drama group on a volunteer basis, the employee worked for both the associate minister and youth minister. While she was on a church-sponsored trip to the Holy Land (led by the associate minister), the youth minister entered her office to look for a file he needed. While there, he discovered a file containing personal notes from the associate minister to the employee. The notes confirmed the youth minister's growing suspicion that the two were engaged in a sexual relationship. He immediately shared the notes with the associate minister's wife, and offered specific details of when and where he believed the two had met privately. A few days later, the youth minister shared his allegations with the employee's mother, and suggested to her that her daughter and the associate minister may not return from their trip overseas. The associate minister's wife discussed the allegations with her husband, and concluded that the relationship was not sexual in nature. The youth minister accepted the wife's decision, and retracted his allegations. He apologized to the associate minister and the female employee for the pain he had caused them, and promised never to repeat his suspicions again. Despite his promise, the youth minister soon repeated his suspicions to members of the drama group, and in very little time the entire congregation was aware of the allegations. Soon the employee began receiving unsettling telephone calls and mail from church members. Eventually, the church convened a special committee that investigated the matter and dismissed the employee. Subjected to scorn in her church and neighborhood, and unable to find a job commensurate with her skills, the former employee sued the youth pastor for defamation of character and invasion of privacy. She also sued the church, claiming that by dismissing her it had "ratified" the youth pastor's allegations. A jury awarded the former employee $230,000 in general damages, and an additional $105,000 in "punitive damages". Both the youth pastor and church appealed, and a state appeals court upheld the jury's verdict. The court acknowledged that a plaintiff suing a "public figure" (such as a pastor) for defamation of character must prove not only that the pastor publicized false statements that injured the plaintiff's reputation, but also that the defendant acted with "malice". Malice in this context means that the defendant either knew that the statements he uttered were false, or that he uttered them with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. The court concluded that the former employee had established that the youth pastor acted with malice—since he had repeated statements that he had acknowledged were not true. St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church v. Smith, 568 A.2d 35 (Md. 1990).

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Posted:
  • May 1, 1990

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