Defamation – Part 2

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a pastor could sue his denomination for publishing a statement informing other pastors and the media that he had been suspended from all pastoral duties because of “formal charges of sexual misconduct.”

Church Law and Tax 2003-09-01

Defamation – Part 2

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.

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.

* The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a pastor could sue his denomination for publishing a statement informing other pastors and the media that he had been suspended from all pastoral duties because of “formal charges of sexual misconduct.” This case addresses the important question of how much information can be shared about a person who has been accused of misconduct. In 1990, a church member bequeathed $2 million to her church. Unfortunately, the wording of the will was ambiguous, and the member’s church and a denominational agency (the “diocese”) both claimed to be legally entitled to the estate. While this dispute was pending, a woman (“Linda”) wrote a letter to the bishop of the diocese accusing the pastor of the church (“Pastor James”) of having had an adulterous relationship with her from 1970 through 1975. She alleged that she became pregnant as a result of this relationship, and obtained an abortion. The bishop summoned Pastor James to his office, presented him with Linda’s letter, and informed him that he was being suspended from any further pastoral duties at the church. Despite his vigorous denial of Linda’s allegations, Pastor James was ordered to remove his personal effects from the church, turn over all funds of the church in his possession, and provide the denomination with an accounting of church funds. A few weeks later the bishop gave written notice to all the ministers in the diocese (alleged to be some 500 persons) that Pastor James had been barred from exercising his priestly functions “due to formal charges of sexual misconduct.” The denomination provided the local media with a copy of this notice, and a number of newspaper articles were later published that referred to the charges of “sexual misconduct” against Pastor James.

Pastor James alleged that denominational officials urged the woman to write the letter even though they knew or should have known that her accusations were false, in order to remove him from the church and thereby increase the denomination’s chances of acquiring the assets of the disputed estate. He sued his denomination, alleging several theories of liability including libel and slander. Pastor James noted that this was the first time in the history of the denomination that a disciplinary action involving a minister was not kept “entirely confidential pending a complete investigation and resolution of the complaint.”

The denomination asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the first amendment which generally prevents the civil courts from delving into ecclesiastical matters. A trial court dismissed some of Pastor James’ claims, but allowed others to proceed. The case was appealed. The state supreme judicial court began its opinion by noting that “the first amendment prohibits civil courts from intervening in disputes concerning religious doctrine, discipline, faith, or internal organization,” and that “matters arising out of the church-minister relationship, including church discipline, come within the category of religious belief, and thus are entitled to absolute protection.” Did Pastor James’ defamation claim arise out of “the church-minister relationship, and specifically, whether it arose from religious discipline?” No, concluded the court:

The basis of Pastor James’ defamation claim was Linda’s letter to the bishop. The letter was published solely in a canonical context. Although the letter functioned as the confession of a parishioner to her bishop about her own wrongdoing, it also had significance as an accusation Pastor James violated his trust as a member of the clergy. In that respect the letter supplied the basis for the bishop’s initiation of disciplinary proceedings against Pastor James under the canons. The letter also was incorporated into Linda’s formal charge, the method for victims of certain alleged abuse by the clergy to initiate disciplinary proceedings. Thus, Linda’s letter was used to invoke the church’s internal disciplinary procedures in two ways, and inextricably became part of the internal disciplinary proceeding. We are bound to step aside and permit the church to consider the veracity of Linda’s charge through that process. In addition, both Linda, as parishioner, and Pastor James, as an ordained priest accede to the canons of the Episcopal Church and are bound by them. The Supreme Court has said that “the right to organize voluntary religious associations … for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it.”

Pastor James’ defamation claim against Linda touches the core of the church-minister relationship. The Episcopal Church, like others, has a singular interest in protecting its faithful from clergy who will take advantage of them. Indeed, a church entrusts to its ministers the spiritual care and guidance of parishioners at times when those parishioners are particularly vulnerable, and a church has a strong interest in preventing abuse of that trust. For purposes of the first amendment, a parishioner victim who invokes the Episcopal Church’s internal disciplinary process may invoke as her own freedom of belief the church’s right to be free from state court interference in that process. 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 a civil court.

The court cautioned that “our analysis of this issue is predicated on the fact that the only defamatory publication allegedly made by Linda was made to the Church itself, within its internal disciplinary procedure. The complaint makes no allegation that she repeated her allegedly defamatory statements to any other persons or in any other forum. The absolute first amendment protection for statements made by a Church member in an internal church disciplinary proceeding would not apply to statements made or repeated outside that context.”

Pastor James also alleged that the bishop “slandered” him by calling him a “bully” and a “liar.” The court rejected this claim as well, noting that “publication of a defamatory matter to a third person is an essential element of defamation [and] Pastor James failed to identify any third person who was present at the time” the bishop made his statements.

Application. This case illustrates two important points, First, the court noted that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents clergy from suing churches and denominational agencies for defamation as a result of statements made in the course of disciplinary proceedings. However, as the court cautioned, “the absolute first amendment protection for statements made by a church member in an internal church disciplinary proceeding would not apply to statements made or repeated outside that context.” Second, statements cannot be slanderous unless communicated to third persons. Since the bishop’s allegedly slanderous statements were made to Pastor James without anyone else hearing them, they could not constitute slander. Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese, 773 N.E.2d 929 (Mass. 2002).

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