Ministers’ Defamation Suit Against Church Held to Be SLAPP
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A dispute between members of a church and the couple in charge of its youth programs over alleged improper conduct with a young female was a public matter for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Affirming a Yolo Superior Court judge’s dismissal of a defamation suit by George and Wendy Terry against Davis Community Church, its pastor, and the members of an internal investigating committee, the panel rejected the Terrys’ claim that the suit dealt solely with a private relationship and an internal church dispute.
“The issue as to whether or not an adult who interacts with minors in a church youth program has engaged in an inappropriate relationship with any of the minors is clearly a matter of public interest,” Justice Richard Sims III wrote. “The public interest is society’s interest in protecting minors from predators, particularly in places such as church programs that are supposed to be safe.”
Wendy Terry, whose title at the church was minister for youth, and her husband, who was also her assistant, resigned their positions in February last year. They also resigned from membership in the church, and filed suit a month later.
The resignations came after a formal complaint by the girl’s parents after they discovered computer correspondence between their daughter and George Terry. In more than 100 pages of e-mails and online “chat,” George Terry described his relationship with the girl in romantic terms and referred to physical contact he said had taken place between them.
The pastor, who had previously become aware of allegations that George Terry was focusing an inordinate amount of time and attention on the girl, asked the committee to investigate.
Before the committee completed its investigation, the Terrys resigned. George Terry acknowledged that some of his correspondence with the girl was inappropriate, and Wendy Terry acknowledged she had been aware of what was going on.
The Terrys insisted that there had been no sexual conduct involved and that their intentions were to raise the girl’s self-esteem, but conceded they had made “serious errors in judgment.” They later claimed that the resignation letter was written at the pastor’s urging.
In their Superior Court complaint, the Terrys claimed that the committee’s report, which was sent to over 100 church members and others and accused them of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with the girl and of lying about it, and anonymously mailed flyers sent to the plaintiffs’ neighbors repeating the accusations, defamed them.
The also cited a series of meetings instigated by the church in the wake of the report, even though they had resigned by then.
In opposition to the anti-SLAPP motion, they argued that the defamatory communications dealt with public, not private, conduct, and that even if the anti-SLAPP law applied, the motion should be denied because they were defamed and thus likely to prevail.
Judge Thomas Warriner disagreed. He granted the motion and awarded the defendants $10,500 in attorney fees.
Sims said the trial judge was correct, and that the public had an interest in the discussion of how to best protect minors who come into frequent contact with adults who may be predators.
“This is not to say that George Terry in fact molested the girl,” Sims explained. “Rather, George Terry’s actions in engaging in a secretive and inappropriate relationship with the girl gave the Church and parents of youth group members cause for concern and opened for discussion the topics of whether other children were affected and how to prevent such inappropriate relationships.”
Nor did the fact that the Terrys had resigned obviate the public nature of the discussion, Sims said. The plaintiffs, he explained, “id not have the power to foreclose discussion by resigning.”
Sims went on to reject the claim that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the defamation claim. All of the allegedly defamatory statements, he wrote, were true, were privileged, or were protected expressions of opinion.
The case is Terry v. Davis Community Church, 05 S.O.S. 4019.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company