Lawyers for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are contending that a state court judge in Kentucky should issue a summary judgment to end a lawsuit brought by Roger Dermody, the denomination’s former deputy executive director for mission, because the claims involved in the lawsuit involve “quintessential matters of faith and polity.”
The response contends that the court should apply “the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and Ministerial Exception” and “must avoid infringing upon the Church’s First Amendment rights and dismiss this case.”
The PC(USA) is a religious institution; Dermody is a minister; and examining the claims he made in filing the lawsuit May 29 in Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville “would require an examination of the Church’s faith and ecclesiastical governance,” a June 25 response filed with the court states.
The denomination’s legal response also:
- Asks the court to consolidate two defamation lawsuits: Dermody’s and one that Eric Hoey, who had been the PC(USA)’s director of Evangelism and Church Growth, filed on June 16. The response argues that the two cases “involve common questions of law and fact and consolidation will avoid unnecessary expense and delay.”
- Seeks to serve third-party complaints against Philip Lotspeich, who had been the PC(USA)’s Coordinator for Church Growth, and Craig Williams, who had been the associate for Church Growth in the Western States.
- Moves to stay or halt discovery (the process by which one party in a lawsuit is allowed to get evidence and information from the opposing party) in the case until the judge rules on the motion for summary judgment.
The defamation suit stems from an ethics investigation connected with the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshipping Communities program and the creation in late 2013 of an unauthorized nonprofit corporation in California to which $100,000 in PC(USA) grant funds were sent. All of the money has been returned, and Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, has said none of those involved acted for personal gain.
In November 2014, the PC(USA) placed four men – Dermody, Hoey, Lotspeich and Williams – on paid administrative leave in connection with the matter. On June 1, Marilyn Gamm, chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, announced the four were no longer working for the church, although she declined to elaborate. The church already has spent more than $850,000 in legal fees connected to the case. In a pastoral letter Gamm said that no per capita funds are being spent on the litigation.
Valentine has announced that she is resigning, effective July 10.
Documents filed as part of the PC(USA)’s response to Dermody’s lawsuit also state that:
- Dermody failed to “pursue and exhaust his internal remedies, which include a remedial judicial process before the Permanent Judicial Process of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the denomination’s ecclesiastical court.
- The denomination denies Dermody’s claim that there was “no evidence” that he “knew of, or played any part in” the creation of the nonprofit corporation or the transfer of money to it. It also states that “any statements made by or attributed to the Church were true or substantially true” and that the PC(USA) is not legally responsible “for any rumors or gossip . . that may have filtered through the wider denomination” after the truthful statements were made. “Moreover, any such rumors or gossip allegedly communicated by members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must be addressed by seeking a Request for Vindication” through a process outlined in the Book of Order.
- Dermody, Hoey, Lotspeich and Williams all are teaching elders and “are held to the highest ethical and moral standards, and their actions and/or inactions fell short of those expectations.”
- On Oct. 2, Valentine issued an employment warning to Dermody in connection with the ethics investigation. Valentine stated in an affidavit that “any disciplinary action taken against a teaching elder while an employee at the Presbyterian Mission Agency must be reported to the teaching elder’s presbytery, as is required by the Presbyterian Mission Agency employee handbook and the Book of Order.” Valentine reported the warning issued to Dermody on Oct. 10, 2014, in a letter to Linda Culbertson, general missioner of the Presbytery of the Pacific, of which Dermody is a member.
- Valentine’s affidavit contends that “the Presbyterian Mission Agency issued several press releases in late 2014 and early 2015” and that the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board “also provided information to the wider denomination” by releasing minutes of meetings related to the inquiry. The affidavit states that “the Presbyterian Mission Agency has a responsibility to provide the wider denomination with information related to the activities, the allocation of the budget, and other issues that may cause concern, such as teaching elder violations of policies and procedures. The Presbyterian Mission Agency never provided any third party outside the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” with information related to the warning issued to Dermody or the creation of the unauthorized corporation.
John Sheller, of the Louisville law firm Stoll Keenon Ogden, is representing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) A Corporation (which is the PC(USA)’s corporate identity) in Dermody’s defamation lawsuit.