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Can the Church Still Enact Justice When a Pastor Sues His Accusers?

The PCA takes up the case of a church leader who responded to sexual harassment claims with a defamation lawsuit against his accusers.
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Can the Church Still Enact Justice When a Pastor Sues His Accusers?
Image: PCAAC
The PCA gathers this week for its general assembly.

As the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) discusses its response to abuse at its annual General Assembly this week, a case involving an Indiana pastor suing former congregants over allegations against him is making its way through civil court and the denomination’s own system.

Dan Herron, 46, a PCA pastor—or teaching elder—accused of sexual harassment, says the women making claims against him are lying and has sued them for defamation. Several presbyteries have passed measures requesting the PCA intervene.

“For an accused teaching elder to sue his accusers in a civil court—it is ugly,” said Steve Marusich, a pastor in the Central Indiana Presbytery who has been closely involved in the presbytery’s investigation.

The country got a glimpse of defamation cases around abuse allegations with the recent Johnny Depp–Amber Heard trial, where the actor accused his former spouse of defamation over an op-ed that implied he had abused her.

After the ruling awarding Depp $10 million in damages, some legal experts worried that more abusers would use defamation as a strategy to silence victims. The threat of such lawsuits could discourage victims from coming forward.

While church disputes don’t usually turn into legal fights, Herron is among several pastors and ministry leaders who have filed defamation suits in recent years. These kinds of cases are costly and often drag out for years, grinding down victims and denominations trying to separately enforce church discipline. Civil proceedings during a church trial mean that witnesses in the church trial might be afraid of testifying for fear of being sued, or of other consequences in the civil trial. Civil cases also require extensive evidence gathering that might interfere with a church prosecutor’s investigation.

Pastor Dan Herron is accused of sexual harassment.
Image: Screengrab / Vimeo.com

Pastor Dan Herron is accused of sexual harassment.

“Filing a civil suit—we just do not do that,” said Dave Haigler, a PCA ruling elder who works as a federal administrative law judge. “I don’t think there’s even anything in the BCO [the PCA’s Book of Church Order] about that; it just violates Scripture.” Elders referenced among other Scriptures the admonition in 1 Corinthians 6 to not take believers to court.

Haigler previously served for two terms on the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), which is essentially a high court for presbytery disputes. Haigler can’t remember the SJC taking original jurisdiction in a case like this, but this month the SJC agreed to try the case against Herron. That ecclesiastical investigation and trial will coincide with pastor’s civil case.

Over the past year, as more congregants are speaking up about sexual abuse and spiritual abuse, some of the accused are likewise pushing back in court.

In March, Colorado megachurch pastor Jonathan Wiggins of Rez.Church sued former staff and members for defamation over accusations that he was in a sexual relationship with an assistant pastor, among other allegations. The church leadership told the congregation it found “no moral, financial, or doctrinal failure” on Wiggins’s part.

In June, a Maryland pastor filed suit against three people, his son-in-law among them, over a blog full of allegations against him, including that he had urged a victim of domestic abuse to stay with her husband.

In Herron’s case, two women publicly accused him of sexual harassment and bullying. Herron denies the accusations, and declined to comment to CT.

The Indiana Daily Student, the student newspaper at Indiana University Bloomington, first reported details of the allegations in 2021. While attending Herron’s congregation in 2018, Kara Million said the Hope Presbyterian pastor had repeatedly sought her out alone, physically cornered her, and in one instance pressed against her breasts for 10 to 15 seconds.

Million’s husband, Chris Baker, was an intern for Herron and said the pastor would regularly ask him about his wife. The couple left Hope at the end of his internship, according to the news report, and haven’t joined any church since.

Abigail Gschwend Harris alleged similar behavior, saying that Herron sought her out alone and pressed his body against her. Gschwend Harris declined to comment for this article.

Herron has denied their characterization of events, both in media reports and in the defamation lawsuit. In legal filings, Herron called such moments “incidental contact without sexual intent.”

He alleges that the women’s defamatory statements in podcasts, on social media, and in news reports (including leaked materials from private presbytery meetings) cost him a job and forced him to seek counseling. He now works at a health organization in Indianapolis, though he retains his ordination as a pastor.

The women, former members of Herron’s church, first sent their complaints to the Central Indiana Presbytery in 2019. After many twists, turns, internal fights, and complaints filed with the denomination, the presbytery concluded its investigation and reported in May 2021 that it found a “strong presumption of guilt” and recommended a church trial against Herron.

The presbytery, which said it was investigating “various reports concerning [Herron’s] Christian character,” did not say what the presumption of guilt was about specifically.

A few weeks after the presbytery’s report, Herron filed a lawsuit against the women and accused them of defamation and “a campaign of harassment” against him. The trial is set for 2023. Million has also countersued, alleging that Herron had defamed her by calling her a liar.

Civil litigation versus ecclesiastical justice

Meanwhile, the trial process within the presbytery slowed. Thinking of the witnesses in the church trial, Marusich said they might be less likely to share accusations against Herron with the threat of lawsuits hanging over them: “If you’re already being sued, are you going to go in there and tell people what happened? … Some of them feel like the process is designed to wear them out so they’ll quit.”

In February PCA pastor Josh Holowell, the prosecutor for the Central Indiana Presbytery’s trial against Herron, resigned. He was frustrated with the slowness of the presbytery to act while a civil case was proceeding against the women. The decision, he said in a statement, was “based solely on the inability of the Central Indiana Presbytery to render justice, and my own personal weariness from the constant opposition to the pursuit of justice and truth.”

He continued:

The rules of discipline as laid out in the Book of Church Order have been ignored to the benefit of the accused on multiple occasions. The bias of this presbytery has made the rendering of justice in this ecclesiastical court impossible. How can an ecclesiastical process be fairly adjudicated while civil action against the witnesses is allowed to continue? My soul is weary, and I can only imagine my weariness pales in comparison to that felt by the accusers and witnesses in this case.

Million told CT in an email that from the perspective of a victim, the PCA ecclesiastical process has been “horrific” and “heavily biased in favor of the accused.”

“Many of the people originally handling the case were colleagues and close friends of his,” she said, adding that he was able to be involved in his own case while, as a woman, she could not participate in deliberations restricted to church officers.

Elders in other presbyteries around the country began hearing through informal conversations about the Indiana case. Later this spring, four presbyteries (Korean Capital , Chesapeake, Northern California, and Northern New England) passed overtures requesting that the denomination should take over and hear the accusations against Herron itself.

One overture from Northern California said Herron had been “credibly accused of impropriety” and that the defamation lawsuit “constitutes clear evidence of TE Herron’s intention to employ the civil magistrate to prevent his accusers’ testimony against him, and thus preclude or undermine the proceedings of the ecclesial court.”

The Northern California presbytery asked the denomination to investigate and try the case “for the express purpose of defending the honor of Christ, clearing the public scandal, restoring the peace and purity of Christ’s Church, and providing the care of a true shepherd to [teaching elder] Daniel Herron and to his accusers.”

Though the PCA is not a top-down denomination, the BCO has a provision that a minimum of two presbyteries can ask for the denomination to take up original jurisdiction of a case in certain situations of “public scandal.”

Haigler, the elder who sat on the SJC, knows the SJC has the power to be the judge and jury for pastors facing abuse accusations but he had never heard of the SJC taking original jurisdiction in a case like this Indiana one. But in June the SJC agreed to hear the case. The SJC is made up of PCA elders, many of whom have backgrounds as judges or lawyers.

Haigler thinks the SJC is generally a good system for the PCA because it brings finality to disputes. But for abused women seeking justice? The SJC “doesn’t work for that very well,” said Haigler because it is so focused on the technicalities of church governance.

He believes there is room for the PCA to adapt on this. “I don’t think there’s anything in the rules that says we have to be judicial and we can’t be pastoral,” he said.

Multiple people involved in the Indiana case repeated that refrain, saying the PCA’s approach to abuse tends to be more judicial than pastoral. The PCA has a reputation for its commitment to process and rules, which can drag out the simplest actions with amendments and points of order. Because churches are elder-led and all PCA elders are men, only men are involved in the decisions about complaints of abuse within a presbytery.

“The judicial process of this denomination is not trauma-informed in any way,” said Marusich, one of the Central Indiana Presbytery elders. “I’m not saying, ‘I’m Mister Trauma-Informed.’ But I realized in a way I did not two years ago that we are not trauma-informed.”

Instead of elders within one local presbytery hearing abuse complaints, Marusich thinks the PCA should move to a synod-type system where elders from outside presbyteries handle abuse investigations and where women are involved in cases involving women.

“Almost always, the victims I work with say that [the church process] was worse than the actual abuse,” said Ann Maree Goudzwaard, the executive director of Help[H]er, a local church-based effort to help women advocate for women in crisis within PCA churches.

Goudzwaard also served on the PCA’s Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault committee, helping create the report that the denomination just released. “The [Book of Church Order] was never written with abuse in mind.”

The church trial could have a bearing on the outcome of the civil case. US courts are hesitant to weigh in on church matters due to church autonomy doctrine, an American legal principle that differs from the UK, where the church and government were one and the same. US courts don’t want to be entangled in church matters.

Lawyers looking at this Indiana case thought that the existence of an ecclesiastical trial would make courts less likely to want to intervene because a civil ruling would influence the church trial. But cases with pastors suing over abuse allegations have few precedents.

During the Catholic Church’s abuse crisis, some priests filed defamation suits to counter allegations against them. In the case of a Chicago priest, a state supreme court tossed the suit in 2006 on the grounds that it was a church matter the courts couldn’t intervene in.

In a 2013 case, a man sued his ex-wife for defamation over comments she made about him in church tribunal. The court said the process of discovery alone would interfere with the church’s tribunal proceedings and dismissed the case. In that case, though, the woman had not discussed the supposedly defamatory statements outside of a church court.

The dismissal of such cases tends to be about whether a court is drawn into a theological debate.

Nathan Adams, an attorney with experience on church autonomy cases, said even Herron’s letter of defense in the court documents contains a lot of religious material, like referring to a sermon he preached.

“There’s lots of stuff in the dispute that has a religious nature to it,” he said.

Adams said a pastor suing parishioners is unusual, but the involvement of the church in the dispute here means that Herron shouldn’t be fighting former congregants in secular court. Even if the church process is flawed, “the solution to a flawed process is to fix it.”

September
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