RISKS OF PASTORIAL WARNINGS

If a pastor reasonably believes that a parishioner is sexually predatory toward other vulnerable parishioners, the pastor may have a moral duty to take preventative and protective action.  The first consideration must be given to whether a mandatory child abuse statute has been triggered by the factual basis for the pastor’s belief.  If so, only a call to law enforcement is required by law.  However, if the pastor feels other parishioners should be warned, they may be advised cautiously.  If non-members should be warned, there may be certain risks to the method selected.  Litigation risk is one of those.

In Christakis v Deitsch, Slip Op. (Ariz. App. 2020), the plaintiff alleged the pastor wrote a letter to the Plaintiff, the church’s lawyer, and the local police chief in which the pastor described the Plaintiff as “demonstrating an explosive temper on a repeated basis” and other disquieting acts.  The trial court and appellate court held the letter was not actionable because it was not “published,” because it was not sent to the community but only to two others besides Plaintiff.  Use of the letter as an exhibit in a following court proceeding, thus filing it in the public court record, did not make the letter actionable because of the litigation immunity attendant upon court records.  The Plaintiff also alleged that the pastor cast him in a false light by telling “around the community” that “a pedophile in the community was grooming children in order to molest them.”  The appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the case to allow proceedings regarding the alleged statements of the pastor.

Because a motion to dismiss was overruled means the case was remanded for discovery and other pleadings.  Whether the Plaintiff’s case would survive to trial remained to be litigated.  However, the allegation was not that the pastor kept the alleged “false light” statements inside the church but rather that the pastor was conveying them outside the church to the community.  Generally, statements regarding disciplinary matters among church members are not actionable.  The best practice would generally be to restrict the number of persons that know the details of a disciplinary matter to those that must know.  Pastors that feel the need to warn non-church members should only do so with the assistance of counsel.  Truth may be a defense, but it may require an expensive vindication.

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