• Key point. Statements made in the course of internal church disciplinary proceedings ordinarily cannot be defamatory, but some courts recognize an exception to this rule if information shared in such proceedings is disclosed to persons outside of the church.
A Louisiana court ruled that it could resolve a priest’s claim that he had been defamed by statements church officials made to the media. A Catholic priest who had been accused of molesting a child was investigated by church officials. He later filed a lawsuit claiming that the investigating officials had defamed him by making unauthorized disclosures to the media about the case, and interfered with his future employment. The church officials asserted that the civil courts had no authority to resolve the priest’s lawsuit since it was an internal matter of church discipline. A state appeals court disagreed.
The court began its opinion by observing:
Society does not view child molestation as a matter of religious doctrine, as distinguished from, say, the procedures within the church necessary to atone for such a sin. Child sexual abuse is anathema to society in general, even to atheists. It is prohibited by secular laws. The public has an interest in matters of child molestation. Therefore, where child molestation is at issue, it cannot be considered just an internal matter of church discipline or administration. Child molestation is distinguishable from those cases where religious figures claim that their reputations were damaged because they were found to be poor administrators or where their private conduct did not comport with church standards, but the issue was not one of the violation of secular criminal laws. The church cannot appropriate a matter with secular criminal implications by making it simultaneously a matter of internal church policy and discipline.
The court conceded that the civil courts cannot resolve defamation claims brought by clergy if the allegedly defamatory remarks were communicated only to church members in the context of a disciplinary hearing or proceeding. It observed:
It is one thing to say that churches must be free of governmental interference to conduct matters of internal discipline and organization, even when those matters touch upon the reputations of those affected. It is quite another to say that churches have the unfettered right to make unsubstantiated statements of an essentially secular nature to the media destructive of a priest’s character ….
The court cautioned that the priest “may be unable to prove his allegation of defamation through the news media,” but added that “we cannot say that this court lacks … jurisdiction over such an allegation.”
Interference with employment
The priest insisted that a church official interfered with his employment prospects as a Navy chaplain as a result of a letter of reference that referred to “some accusations of questionable behavior and some complaints about [the priest’s] ministry.” The church official insisted that the letter of reference pertained to the fitness of the priest for assignment to a chaplaincy position-a matter beyond the reach of the civil courts. The court did not address this issue directly, but seemed to acknowledge that internal communications among clergy or church leaders regarding the fitness of a minister cannot give rise to civil liability.
Application. There are a couple of aspects to this decision that are of special significance to church leaders. First, the court conceded that statements made among members in the course of church disciplinary proceedings cannot be defamatory. However, it recognized an exception to this rule in the context of “leaks” of information by church officials to outsiders, including the media. Second, the court seemed to support the general rule that the civil courts have no authority to review disputes concerning the selection or qualification of ministers. Hayden v. Schulte, 701 So.2d 1354 (La. App. 1997). [Defamati on]
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