Key point 4-02. Defamation consists of (1) oral or written statements about another person; (2) that are false; (3) that are "published" (that is, communicated to other persons); and (4) that injure the other person's reputation.
Key point 4-02.1. Ministers may be liable for making defamatory statements if a civil court can resolve the dispute without any inquiry into church doctrine or polity.
A Tennessee court ruled that a pastor had not defamed a former church member by sending an email to members of the congregation explaining the church's response to a recent lawsuit naming the church as a defendant. A former church member (the "plaintiff") brought several lawsuits against his former pastor and church in which he alleged that the church and its agents injured him in furtherance of actions to fraudulently conceal child sexual abuse by one of its members. In an attempt to apprise members of the church's position, the pastor wrote a letter to the congregation that was published in the church's email newsletter. The email stated as follows:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I write to inform you that a former member [the plaintiff] has filed a lawsuit against our church, seeking damages and making a number of serious, but false allegations. You may read something in the papers tomorrow or soon thereafter about this. He has also sued [regional and national denominational agencies with which the church is affiliated].
The former member has made numerous complaints about our church for the last ten or eleven years. Our best efforts to resolve these matters proved unsuccessful. We are saddened that he has taken this step but will cooperate fully with authorities in the coming days. We will also keep you well informed as developments arise. Please keep the leadership of the church in your prayers, in particular the committee that will be handling this. Please contact any of these men, or any of the pastors if you have questions. Thank you for your prayers!