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.