Key point 4-02.01. Ministers may be liable for making defamatory statements if a civil court can resolve the dispute without any inquiry into church doctrine or polity.
Key point 4-02.03. Several 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.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the “qualified privilege” insulated a church from liability for defamation based on email communications by a pastor to some church members in which he falsely claimed that a church member was guilty of sexually abusing the member’s three-year-old daughter.
An adult male (the “plaintiff”) is a former member of defendant church. He began attending the church in 2005 and became a full member in 2007. From 2006 to 2015, he served as a volunteer leader in the church’s high school ministry.
Through his involvement with the church, he met a woman who was also an active member. The couple was married a few years later.
The couple regularly participated in a church small group where group members discussed their lives and weekly Scripture readings. The couple’s small group was attended by ten couples, including a pastor who led their small group. The church practiced what it describes as “Biblical Soul Care,” which was further defined as “speaking the truth in love in your circle of influence.” Small groups are a part of this. The plaintiff testified that the couple’s small group operated as follows:
Generally, we would get together and meet, talk, socialize for a bit of time, maybe eat some food, and then we would gather in a room and either watch a video, do a study from the Bible, and then after a time, then the men would break out and go to our own area and the women would do the same.
Essentially the congregants of the church provided counsel to one another using a “counseling in community” approach. According to the plaintiff, there was no formal confidentiality agreement, but there was discussion “[t]hat it’s a safe place to share and what’s said there stays there.”
The pastor and his wife became close friends with the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s wife, and a third couple. The pastor invited the two other couples to join him and his wife in a new regular group consisting of just the three couples. The new group met on a weekly basis. They had the same verbal commitment that “what’s said there stays there.”
The new group met over 20 times as a group of six, without men and women breaking off separately. The new group practiced “Biblical Soul Care,” but more informally. The three couples would go around the room and each couple would give an update on how things were going in their marriage and in their family. In these discussions, the plaintiff frankly discussed “all my sexual sin.” He also discussed problems with sexual intimacy.
In April 2015, the plaintiff’s wife called the pastor and reported that her three-year-old daughter told her that the plaintiff had touched her under her underwear. The wife immediately sought a temporary protective order against her husband. The court granted an order the next day.
The wife sent emails to staff members at the church about the sex abuse. She also discussed the allegations with members of the congregation and notified the police and the state Department of Human Services (DHS).
Pursuant to church policy, the following day a “Security Alert” flyer was posted in the church with a picture of the plaintiff and stating: “The court finds that the Protected Party [the wife] and the children . . . are in danger of physical harm from[the plaintiff] (husband & father).” It explained that the plaintiff “cannot be on the premises at the same time as [his wife and children]. He cannot be in contact or pick up his children from church.”
On May 3, 2015, the pastor sent an email to the members of the ten-couple small group. This email read, in part:
Well—it is with a very heavy heart that I am needing to write this email to all of you. A[s] our former small group and partners in ministry I thought it best to do it this way so that you can discreetly pass this information on to others who you think need to know. Please use much discretion. . . . [I]n the past 3 months things got to a point that intensive counseling was absolutely necessary [for the plaintiff and his wife] and we were to begin it a week from today. Unfortunately, we had to pull the plug out of fear of authorities getting involved due to the fact that [the counselor] is a mandatory reporter of child abuse. . . . We believe not going was best [because] we did not believe at that time the kids were in immediate danger and since the information came out to me in an informal setting of a home I was not a mandatory reporter. . . .
As it stands there is currently an order of protection against [the plaintiff] until at least Wed[nesday] when there will be a hearing. This came about from events that transpired last week . . . that forced [the plaintiff’s wife] to take action and get authorities involved (DHS and police)—which meant filing for the protection order and removing him from the house. . . . I trust you can connect the dots and realize that what we are talking about are horrific allegations and are tough to even discuss openly. . . .
[T]he allegations are serious enough that I would counsel you not have him stay in any of your homes if he asks to do so especially if you have children.
Following an investigation, DHS did not conclude that the child sexual abuse allegations were founded. In September 2015, the plaintiff’s wife filed a second report of child sexual abuse, which DHS likewise investigated and was unable to substantiate. In January 2016, she filed a third report of child sexual abuse, which DHS investigated and was unable to substantiate.
Law enforcement also declined to pursue criminal charges against the plaintiff. In addition, on September 14, 2016, the couple’s divorce was finalized with the court awarding physical care of the children to the plaintiff. The court presiding over the divorce proceeding determined that the plaintiff’s wife lacked credibility.
On April 17, 2017, the plaintiff filed suit against the church and its pastor (the “defendants”) on the following grounds: (1) breach of a fiduciary duty of confidentiality; (2) invasion of privacy based on placing him in a false light and public disclosure of private facts; and (3) defamation.
The trial court dismissed the breach of confidentiality and defamation claims. With respect to the duty of confidentiality, the court ruled that the pastor’s communications were subject to a “qualified privilege” because they were “made in furtherance of the church congregation’s common interest.”
The Iowa Supreme Court addressed the plaintiff’s claims
The plaintiff appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.
The duty of confidentiality
On appeal, the plaintiff claimed that the pastor breached a duty of confidentiality—a neutral duty that does not require consideration of religious belief or practice.
The court was not persuaded that the alleged duty “can be neatly separated from [the church’s] teachings and practices.” It concluded that “[t]he question . . . boils down to whether the confidentiality duty can be defined by some neutral source or requires reference to church doctrine and practices.”
The plaintiff pointed to three sources for the confidentiality duty: (1) the clergy-penitent privilege, which the court said “clearly does not apply” because the pastor’s statements occurred in a group setting and therefore were not made in confidence as required for the privilege to apply; (2) the second source was the verbal understanding that what was said in the small groups would stay in the groups; and (3) the third source was a provision in the church bylaws that members would “neither gossip nor listen to gossip concerning any member.”
In effect, the plaintiff claimed that the second and third commitments imposed a legal duty on the pastor as a group leader not to share anything about the plaintiff with the members of the groups or with church staff.
In rejecting the plaintiff’s argument, the court observed:
[T]he second and third commitments were far from specific. We see no way for a court to interpret the scope of these vague promises, and how they apply to [the pastor’s] internal communications with group members and staff, without immersing itself in [the church’s] customs, practices, and doctrine.
In short, deciding liability here would not be a simple task of applying a well-defined secular standard but would involve weighing of both marital counseling standards and the norms by which the church is governed. . . .
[W]e believe “[t]he means by which [the church official] chose to counsel and advise the congregation is outside the purview of the government.”
Because determining whether [the pastor], and derivatively [the church], breached a fiduciary duty of confidentiality to [the plaintiff] arising out of group discipleship discussions would require our courts to interpret [church] doctrine and practices, such a claim cannot proceed in our courts.
The plaintiff also claimed that the pastor’s emails “expressly or impliedly stated that he had abused his children.” Those statements were false and so, in the plaintiff’s view, he was entitled to a jury trial on defamation.
The church defendants argued that a “qualified privilege” applied that protected them from liability. The court referred to a past defamation claim brought by a church member against the church and church officials. Kliebenstein v. Iowa Conference of United Methodist Church, 663 N.W.2d 404 (Iowa 2003). In that case, church officials sent out a letter referring to the church member as having “the spirit of Satan.” The court in the Kliebenstein case concluded that the defamation claim would not “enjoy viability had the matter been divulged solely to the members of the church.” It continued:
[T]he common interest of members of religious associations is such as to afford the protection of qualified privilege to communications between them in furtherance of their common purpose or interest. Thus, communications between members of a religious organization concerning the conduct of other members or officers in their capacity as such are qualifiedly privileged.
The qualified privilege means that otherwise defamatory statements are not defamation unless made with malice. Malice means a knowledge that the statements were false or made with a reckless disregard as to their truthfulness.
But the court in Kliebenstein concluded that the qualified privilege was not available because “publication of the letter was not limited to a ‘religious community or body’”; rather, the letter had been “mailed not only to members of the congregation but also to other persons living in the . . . community.”
In the present case, the plaintiff opposed application of the qualified privilege on the ground that the pastor sent the May 3 email to a nonmember of the church. One of the recipients of that email had ceased to be a member of the church. In rejecting the plaintiff’s argument, the court concluded:
“Qualified privilege may be lost, however, if the speaker abuses the privilege by speaking with actual malice or excessively publishing the statement ‘beyond the group interest.’ . . . In the clergy context, a statement loses its privilege if made to individuals outside the congregation.” Does it make a difference that [the pastor] sent his May 3 email to [a former church member]?
The defendants say no, and the trial court agreed. [The recipient] was no longer a member of [the church], but he was not a stranger. [The pastor] attested there was no requirement that someone be a member of the church in order to participate in small groups. [The email recipient] had remained involved with the discipleship group for [the plaintiff]. He had been checking in by email with [the plaintiff] monthly for continued discipleship with the men in the Small Group.
Moreover, [his] responses to the May 3 email show that he had a common interest in the matter. In his first email [he] said, “I’m heart-broken for [the plaintiff’s family].” In a later communication, he added that [the plaintiff] had been contacting him. He indicated that his spouse and [the plaintiff’s former wife] were close, and he asked whether he should be concerned about the safety of his girls since they spent time with the plaintiff’s children.
The court concluded:
Under these circumstances, we find as a matter of law that [the former member] retained a common interest in the subject matter of [the pastor’s email] communications. The qualified privilege for communications by religious organizations is essentially a variant of the common-interest privilege. . . . Again, no one other than Small Group members and church staff received the pastor’s emails. . . .
In sum, [the pastor’s] emails, whatever their flaws, were sent by a religious leader exclusively to staff and members of that religious community, plus one person who retained genuine ties to that religious community. The emails were in furtherance of their common purposes. We conclude that a qualified privilege applies. Given the lack of evidence of malice, summary judgment on the defamation claim was warranted.
What this means for churches
Church leaders should be familiar with this case for the following reasons.
First, pastors should be careful when disseminating damaging personal information concerning a member to other members, since this may constitute defamation. If in doubt about the propriety of doing so, seek legal counsel.
Second, this case illustrates the concept of qualified privilege. According to this widely recognized legal principle, statements made by church leaders to members regarding matters of common interest generally cannot be defamatory unless made with “malice.”
Malice in this context means that the person making the statements knew they were false or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truthfulness.
Malice is very difficult to prove, and this means that churches have significant protection when communicating with members regarding matters of common interest. But the protection is not absolute and does not extend to malicious statements as defined above. It is critical to note that the privilege only applies to communications to or among church members, the key point being that nonmembers do not have a legitimate interest in knowing matters of common interest among members, and so any disclosure to them would transcend any legitimate need to know.
Church leaders wanting to preserve the qualified privilege defense when communicating matters of common interest to the congregation should take steps to ensure that their statements are directed exclusively to members. Be sure to consult with legal counsel before making any communication that is potentially damaging to any one or more persons.
Common examples of the application of the qualified privilege would include congregational meetings that are called to inform members about the reasons for the discipline of a church staff member. Sharing negative and damaging information about a current or former employee at such a meeting can be reduced by ensuring that only members are in attendance.
959 N.W.2d 680, 2021 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 67 (2021 WL 2021643