Defamation of Ministers by Denominational Officials

Court rules that chancellor’s statements were not defamatory.

Church Law and Tax 1994-09-01 Recent Developments

Libel and Slander

Key point: Critical statements made by a denominational official about a minister’s contentious relationship with the denomination are not defamatory per se.

An Illinois appeals court ruled that statements made about a priest by the chancellor of a Catholic diocese were not defamatory. A priest was removed from his parish assignment by his bishop because of the “extreme animosity” between him and members of a family within the church over an estate. A deceased family member left 160 acres to his son and daughter “for the perpetual use and benefit” of the church. The priest maintained that neither he nor the church was ever informed by the family about this gift. When the priest learned of the gift, a lawsuit was brought to determine the ownership of the 160 acre tract and the $160,000 in profits derived from the farming of this land. The court found that the land belonged to the church and ordered the property to be sold and the funds distributed as stipulated by the deceased family member. During this litigation the priest learned that a substantial portion of the funds had previously been loaned to a parochial high school foundation that was a subsidiary of the diocese. The priest contacted his bishop and the chancellor of the diocese and advised them that their actions were contrary to canon and civil law because they had been aware of the nature and source of the funds and had approved the diversion of the funds away from the local parish to the school foundation without “due process or authorization.” A short time later, the bishop issued a canonical decree, imposing the censure of suspension on the priest. The decree states, in relevant part:

[The priest] has repeatedly declined to meet with the bishop …. [The priest] in addition to severe exhortations and admonitions, has received warnings that he will be suspended if he refuses to cooperate. [His] wild charges have not been upheld by ecclesiastical courts or higher authorities. [He] threatens to continue his untrue and disruptive public statements.

The canonical decree also contained language that indicated the basis of the priest’s discipline: “Furthermore, since [the priest] is engaged in a secular profession without the permission of the diocesan bishop, he is forbidden to wear clerical garb or to present himself as in any way representing the Catholic Church. Moreover, since he has been absent from priestly assignment for a number of years … he will be considered a departed priest.”

The priest sued the bishop and diocese claiming that the decree amounted to defamation of his character. Specifically, he claimed that the decree’s statements characterizing him as a person who has made “wild charges” and who “threatens to continue his untrue and disruptive public statements” were “libelous per se”. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit and the priest appealed. On appeal, the priest argued that the trial court erred in dismissing his lawsuit because the decree constituted “libel per se”. The appeals court began its opinion by noting:

A statement is considered defamatory if it tends to cause such harm to the reputation of another that it lowers that person in the eyes of the community or deters third persons from associating with him. Statements that are considered to be defamatory per se occur when the defamatory character is apparent on its face, and are typically within one of four classifications, two of which are at issue here. They are (1) words that impute an inability to perform or want of integrity in the discharge of duties of office or employment, or (2) words that prejudice a party, or impute lack of ability in his trade, profession or business. Per se statements are so obvious and materially harmful to the plaintiff that injury to his or her reputation may be presumed …. In determining whether a statement is defamatory per se, courts apply the modified innocent construction rule. The modified innocent construction rule is as follows: “[A] written or oral statement is to be considered in context, with the words and the implications therefrom given their natural and obvious meaning; if as so construed, the statement may reasonably be innocently interpreted or reasonably be interpreted as referring to someone other than the plaintiff it cannot be actionable per se. A reviewing court must consider all parts of the publication in order to ascertain the true meaning of the words.”

From a reading of the statement as a whole, it appears that the thrust of the censure is based on [the priest’s] secular employment without the permission of the diocese, his absence from the diocese for a number of years, and his lack of regard for the warnings issued by the diocese. [The priest] does not dispute these charges or even claim that they are defamatory. [The decree’s] statements that [the priest] has made “wild charges” and “threatens to continue his untrue and disruptive public statements” do not on their face indicate that [he] is unable to discharge his duties for lack of integrity or impute a lack of ability to be a priest. Additionally, we find that a reading of these statements as not being actionable per se is reasonable under the modified innocent construction rule because they are directed to [the priest’s] relationship with … the diocese and do not pertain to his knowledge or ability to perform the duties of his profession. May v. Myers, 626 N.E.2d 725 (Ill. App. 3 Dist. 1993).

See Also: Defamation

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