Key point 4-02.03. A number of defenses are available to one accused of defamation. These include truth, statements made in the course of judicial proceedings, consent, and self-defense. In addition, statements made to church members about a matter of common interest to members are protected by a “qualified privilege,” meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless they are made with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the statements knew that they were false or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. This privilege will not apply if the statements are made to nonmembers.
An Illinois court ruled that statements made in a church disciplinary process involving accusations of sexual misconduct by a minister were protected against claims of defamation by a qualified privilege.
A minister (the “plaintiff”) served as a church’s lead pastor and also as chairperson of a committee responsible for screening candidates for admission to the ministry within his denomination (the “national church”). A woman (the “defendant”) was one of these candidates. The plaintiff claimed that he informed the defendant that she would need additional counseling before her application could proceed. She alleged that when she met with him to discuss her application he made offensive, sexually explicit comments to her. The plaintiff was shocked.
The Book of Discipline prohibits sexual harassment by ministers, stating that sexual harassment “by representatives of the church is a betrayal of a sacred trust, and a sinful abuse of power for which consequences are necessary and appropriate.” The Book of Discipline defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexually offensive nature” that occurs in a workplace setting.
The Book of Discipline also establishes a system for reporting and adjudicating claims of sexual misconduct against members of the clergy. A victim of sexual harassment may report the allegation to his or her local minister. The person receiving this information must then make a written record of the complaint within 48 hours. The accuser then has seven days to submit a written complaint. The complaint must be in writing, sworn under penalty of perjury, and sent via certified mail to the national church’s “Judicial Committee.” The complaint should contain a description of the facts giving rise to the claim.
The Judicial Committee, which acts like a grand jury, serves as the investigative body of the national church. This committee gathers evidence and investigates claims. While performing its role, the Judicial Committee must act confidentially and can discuss the matter only with other individuals responsible for adjudicating the case. Breach of confidentiality “shall be charged and tried pursuant to the relevant provisions” of the Book of Discipline. The Judicial Committee determines whether there is sufficient evidence to support the allegations of sexual misconduct. If the Judicial Committee finds that the allegations are unfounded, the case is dismissed. If the Judicial Committee finds there is sufficient evidence to support the allegation, the matter is referred to the Trial Committee for a hearing. The Trial Committee, which acts as the trier of fact, determines whether the allegations in the complaint are “sustained, unsustained, or neither sustained nor unsustained.” If the Trial Committee determines that the allegations are sustained, the Book of Discipline provides for punishments ranging from a six-month suspension to permanent termination.
Immediately following the incident of harassment, the defendant, pursuant to the procedure spelled out in the Book of Discipline, filed a complaint with her minister, who forwarded it to a regional church officer, who forwarded it to another officer. This officer ordered the Judicial Committee to convene to investigate the matter. The Judicial Committee determined that the defendant’s allegation of harassment was sustained.
The plaintiff sued the defendant, the regional church, and church officers (the “church defendants”) alleging defamation and emotional distress. He claimed that the allegations of sexual misconduct were false, and that repeating them to other ministers brought him into “public disgrace and scandal.”
The church defendants claimed that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” which recognizes the “power and autonomy of religious organizations to govern and discipline their own clergy free from secular court interference.” The answer further asserted that plaintiff, as a minister, was governed by the national church’s Book of Discipline. The church defendants also claimed that the defamation claim had to be dismissed since statements made in the course of internal church disciplinary proceedings are protected by a “qualified privilege,” meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless made maliciously. The defendants argued that the qualified privilege applied since all of the allegedly defamatory communications occurred within the internal disciplinary proceedings of the church. A trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, and he appealed.
The appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s lawsuit. It began its opinion by noting:
The First Amendment’s protection of internal religious disciplinary proceedings would be meaningless if a parishioner’s accusation that was used to initiate those proceedings could be tested in civil court. Indeed, a person must be free to say anything and everything to his church, at least so long as it is said in a recognized and required proceeding of the religion and to a recognized official of the religion. . . . Since the only defamatory publication allegedly made . . . was made to the church itself within internal disciplinary proceedings, the absolute First Amendment protection for statements made by church members in an internal church disciplinary proceeding precludes the court from exercising jurisdiction in this matter.
The court noted that the plaintiff failed to present evidence that the church defendants published the victim’s statements to anyone outside of the internal disciplinary procedures of the church, and therefore the qualified privilege applied and required the dismissal of the plaintiff’s lawsuit.
The court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that his lawsuit could be resolved using neutral principles of law requiring no interpretation of church doctrine:
Plaintiff argues we can evaluate his claims under neutral principles of law. Essentially, notwithstanding any underlying ecclesiastic matter, plaintiff contends that we can determine (1) whether the church followed its own disciplinary proceedings and (2) whether the alleged statements were defamatory under neutral principles of law. We disagree. Illinois courts will not resolve cases that require interpretation of religious doctrine. Nonetheless, when doctrinal issues are not involved, the court may evaluate the dispute under neutral principles of law. Under the neutral principles of law approach, a court objectively examines pertinent church characteristics, constitutions, bylaws, deeds, state statutes, and other evidence to resolve the matter as it would a secular dispute. Traditionally, the neutral principles of law approach is applied to allocate disputed church property under objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law.
While it is possible that resolution of plaintiff’s claims would not require any interpretation of church’s doctrine, resolving this dispute would involve the secular court interfering with the church’s internal disciplinary proceedings. . . . Irrespective of the fact that a court or jury could apply neutral principles of law . . . to determine whether they were defamatory, those statements were published exclusively within the context of the church’s disciplinary proceedings. Therefore, as previously discussed, this court is bound to step aside and permit the church to consider the veracity of the defendant’s charges of sexual abuse through the church’s process.
What this means for churches
The court concluded that there is an “absolute First Amendment protection for statements made by church members in an internal church disciplinary proceeding,” meaning that complaints of ministerial misconduct made to church officials for investigation ordinarily will not expose the complainants to civil liability for defamation or emotional distress. However, the court cautioned that there is no absolute privilege to make accusations of ministerial misconduct to persons outside of the church disciplinary process, and as a result, such accusations may expose the complainants to civil liability. 2018 IL App (4th) 170469.