Case Name: Bandstra v. Covenant Reformed Church

Filed: June 1, 2018, Supreme Court of Iowa (No. 16-1078)

Subject matter: Tort liability of church related to response to allegations of sexual abuse by pastor under Establishment and Free Exercise clauses, including qualified privilege for allegedly defamatory statements made by church elders.

The pastor of Covenant Reformed Church had sex with women parishioners who were receiving counseling from the pastor.  The Church immediately accepted his resignation upon learning of the events.  In an effort to help the congregation heal, the church brought in therapists and suggested that the women should “repent” of their own “sins” of committing adultery.  The district court granted summary judgment on plaintiffs’ negligence, negligent supervision, and defamation claims.

With respect to Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence, the Supreme Court held: “Here, resolving whether the elders breached their duty to the plaintiffs would result in impermissible entanglement with religion. Following Edouard’s resignation, the elders sought to help the congregation move forward and heal. The means by which they chose to counsel and advise the congregation is outside the purview of the government. Plaintiffs argue ‘a reasonable church would seek assistance for parishioners and not label victims “adulteresses.”’ Yet, that is precisely the type of determination that the Religion Clauses prohibit. The elders determined that certain speakers and mental health resources were outside of their faith. A court cannot dictate what teachings and services a church offers its parishioners. Nor can we disapprove of the elders deciding, pursuant to their duty as religious authorities, that the women would be best healed by simply confessing their ‘sins.’ Because plaintiffs’ first two negligence claims go to the very heart of religious decision-making, they are barred by the First Amendment.”

With respect to Plaintiffs’ negligent supervision claims, the Court held that “[a] court need not interpret any doctrine, nor otherwise impermissibly entangle itself with religion, in order to conclude the elders owed a duty to its parishioners to supervise Edouard. Indeed, failing to hold religious employers accountable for their failure to supervise their employees would grant immunity to religious figures, which the state may not do. Accordingly, we find plaintiffs’ negligent-supervision claims are not barred by the Religion Clauses.”  On the district court’s separate holding that the statute of limitations barred the negligent supervision claims, the court held that “the nature of clergy misconduct prevents victims from understanding that the behavior is exploitive and unlawful” until the victim learned she was one of many victims and that the church had done nothing to prevent the abuse.  While both victims learned of the exploitation more than two years prior to bringing suit, the pastor’s last encounter with one of the plaintiffs was within two years of filing suit, and the negligent supervision claim was not time-barred with respect to actions within the limitations period.

With respect to Plaintiffs’ defamation claims related to the elders’ statements that the Plaintiffs should repent for their own sins of adultery, that the plaintiffs were “not victims”, and that the pastor had not raped one of the plaintiffs, the Court considered each specific statement to determine whether the statement was a fact or opinion, and whether the statement was subject to qualified immunity.  “[C]ommunications between members of a religious organization concerning the conduct of other members or officers in their capacity as such are qualifiedly privileged,” if “1) the statement was made in good faith; (2) the defendant had an interest to uphold; (3) the scope of the statement was limited to the identified interest; and (4) the statement was published on a proper occasion, in a proper manner, and to proper parties only.” “Qualified privilege may be lost, however, if the speaker abuses the privilege by speaking with actual malice or excessively publishing the statement ‘beyond the group interest.’” “A statement is made with actual malice if the speaker ‘acted with knowing or reckless disregard of the truth of the statement.’ In the clergy context, a statement loses its privilege if made to individuals outside the congregation.”  In concluding each of the challenged statements was either inactionable opinion or protected by the qualified privilege, the Court found relevant that at the time of the statements, “Edouard’s conduct had just been revealed …[and] [h]e had not been charged, tried, or convicted,” such that the disputed statements were not made with actual malice, i.e., with knowledge of their falsity.

The Court also rejected Plaintiffs’ argument the privilege was abused by excessive publication in a way that allowed the news media to obtain and publish information about the criminal misconduct where there was no evidence the elders were responsible for the story ending up in the press.

Dana L. Oxley
Dana Oxley is Counsel at Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, P.L.C. Dana uses her writing and research experience in motion work and appellate work.