Defamation lawsuit dismissed

A Kentucky state court judge has issued a ruling dismissing the defamation lawsuit that Roger Dermody, the former deputy executive director for mission, brought against the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) involving the 1001 New Worshiping Communities investigation.

Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman issued a ruling September 22 granting the PC(USA)’s motion for summary judgment in the Dermody case. The PC(USA) had asked that the lawsuit be ended, contending that claims brought in it involve “quintessential matters of faith and polity.”

Dermody and three other PC(USA) employees – Philip Lotspeich, Eric Hoey and Craig S. Williams– lost their jobs in June 2015 following an investigation involving an unauthorized $100,000 grant sent to a nonprofit corporation set up in California. All of the money was repaid, and Linda Valentine, former executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, has said none of the four acted for personal gain.

In her ruling, McDonald-Burkman wrote that Dermody’s defamation claim is based on the PC(USA) “allegedly informing people outside of the governing body of the church that Dermody had committed ethical violations. Dermody was found to have violated PC(USA)’s ethics policies in October 2014 with written warning. Dermody objected to that finding, but signed the warning. That he disagrees with the outcome of the internal investigation does not negate the fact that he was found to have committed ethics violations.”

Therefore, the PC(USA)’s statements regarding this matter “are true,” she wrote in her five-page ruling.

McDonald-Burkman also ruled, however, that “to overcome the truth of the PC(USA)’s statements, the Court would be required to determine if Dermody had in fact committed ethics violations. This would necessitate interpreting church doctrine and policies, which is impossible” under legal doctrine known as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and ministerial exemption.”

That doctrine “prohibits the Court from deciding cases that depend on ‘doctrine, discipline, ecclesiastical law, rule or custom, or church government,’ ”  the ruling states.

In other words, McDonald-Burkman ruled that she could not try to assess the truth of the PC(USA)’s claim that Dermody had indeed committed an ethics violation – because that would involve an interpretation of internal church matters.

Dermody could appeal the ruling. Dermody’s lawyer, Steve Pence, said in an interview that no decision has been made yet about an appeal. Pence stressed, however, that regardless of the judge’s ruling, “Roger Dermody has done nothing unethical at all . . . It’s unfortunate that the church has been able to sully the good name of one of their own ministers, and he has no course of action against them to correct that. What we’ve asked for all along is for the church to acknowledge that Roger Dermody did nothing unethical.”

Marilyn Gamm, chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, announced the ruling after a closed-door meeting with the board’s lawyer in the case, John Sheller. The PC(USA) has spent more than $850,000 in the 1001 investigation and litigation.

Another defamation suit, brought by Hoey, still is pending.

Click here to read the ruling.