• Key point: Statements made in the course of church investigations are protected by a “qualified privilege” meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless they are uttered with “legal malice.” Statements are made with legal malice if they are made with a knowledge that they are false, or with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity.
• A Texas appeals court ruled that statements made by church leaders during a church investigation were not defamatory. In 1987, a young male member of a Catholic church was befriended by a deacon who was a candidate for the priesthood. The member alleged that the deacon brought him gifts, gave him money, and proposed that they have “wrestling matches” in a nearby motel. The member expressed concern over the deacon’s conduct to his mother, telling her that the deacon “wants to rape me.” The member’s mother wrote a letter to the church’s pastor, asking him to “address this problem.” A commission later was appointed by a bishop to investigate these allegations in order to determine if the deacon had committed any act in violation of canon law that would prevent him from being ordained. The complaining member and his mother both repeated their allegations before the commission under an oath of secrecy. They did not say that any wrestling matches or sexual contact ever actually occurred, but rather that the wrestling matches had been requested by the deacon in exchange for the gifts he had given to the member. The commission determined that no immoral genital contact had occurred and that no ecclesiastical impediment existed to prohibit the deacon from being ordained as a priest. In time, many church members became aware of the allegations, and the church was divided over the issue of whether or not the deacon should be ordained as a priest. In anticipation of a protest, church officials allegedly stated that they had received a letter from the member and his mother repudiating their charges and apologizing for any harm that had been done. The ordination took place as scheduled. Spectators protested and were removed, and another group rose and applauded to show their support of the deacon. Later, the member and his mother filed a lawsuit alleging that they had been defamed by church officials. The trial judge dismissed the case, and the member and his mother appealed. A state appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision. It observed:
Statements made in the context of a church investigatory proceeding are protected by a qualified privilege. If a qualified privilege exists, the defamed party has the burden of establishing that the privilege has been abused. A qualified privilege is abused when the person uttering the statement knows the matter to be false or does not act for the purpose of protecting the interest for which the privilege exists. The record includes evidence that the [church officials] uttered false statements impugning the [reputation of the member and his mother] with knowledge of the falsity of those statements. Their qualified privilege to speak in defense of [the deacon] existed because the diocese, the bishop, and the commission members had the right to answer parishioners who were concerned over the conduct of a man about to be ordained a priest. This privilege would protect statements that no sexual contact occurred and statements that they did not believe the [member and his mother] were telling the truth if, in fact, they did not believe [they were]. [Church officials] however would exceed the scope of their privilege if they falsely stated that the [member and his mother] recanted their story, admitted to fabrication, or apologized to [church officials] for making baseless accusations, if they knew that such statements were false.
The court noted that church officials vigorously denied ever having stated that the member and his mother recanted their story or apologized to church officials. In other words, church officials acknowledged that the statements were false, but they denied having made. Ordinarily, this would mean that a jury would have to determine which side was telling the truth. However, the court concluded that the case was properly dismissed since even if the member and his mother could prove that church officials made the defamatory statements they could not be legally accountable for them. The court noted that oral statements (as allegedly had been made by church officials) cannot be defamatory without proof of “special damages” unless they “impute the commission of a crime or affect the defamed person injuriously in his office, profession, or occupation.” Special damages refer to specific monetary damages suffered as a result of the defamation. General damage to reputation is not enough. Since the member and his mother had not proven any specific expenses they had incurred as a result of the alleged defamation, the court concluded that the case must be dismissed.
This case is important, because it illustrates the concept of qualified privilege. Often, church leaders are unsure just what they can communicate to church members in the event of the discipline or dismissal of clergy, employees, or church members. Many states have adopted the concept of qualified privilege, meaning that statements made in the course of ecclesiastical investigations or disciplinary proceedings are not defamatory unless they are uttered with malice. Once again, malice in this context means that the statements were made with a knowledge that they were false, or with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. Note, however, that certain conditions must be met for the privilege to apply. In some states, the privilege only exists with respect to information communicated to other church members. In other words, the privilege does not apply to statements made in a church service or membership meeting at which non-members are present. This is an excellent reason to ensure that potentially defamatory statements regarding a disciplined or dismissed minister or member are not communicated publicly unless it can be established that only members are present (and the meeting is not being recorded). As an additional precaution, members present at such a meeting should be asked to adopt a resolution of confidentiality, agreeing not to discuss the information with any non-member under any circumstances. Kelly v. Diocese of Corpus Christi, 832 S.W.2d 88 (Tex. App. Corpus Christi 1992).
See Also: Statements Concerning Church Matters
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