(By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook). A Kentucky Court of Appeals panel has upheld a state court ruling dismissing the defamation lawsuit that Roger Dermody brought against the Presbyterian Church (USA).
In a July 28 decision, a three-judge appeals court ruled that the lower court was correct to apply the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, saying that not to do so would involve “excessive government entanglement into an ecclesiastical controversy.”
The three-judge panel upheld a 2015 summary judgment by Jefferson Circuit Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman dismissing Dermody’s lawsuit.
Dermody, the PCUSA’s former deputy executive director for mission, filed the defamation lawsuit in state court in May 2015 when he and three others – Eric Hoey, Philip Lotspeich and Craig S. Williams – lost their jobs following an investigation involving a $100,000 grant sent from the 1001 New Worshipping Communities program to a nonprofit corporation set up in California.
An internal PCUSA investigation determined that the four had violated the denomination’s ethics policy in their handling of the matter.
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. The 1001 program is the denomination’s effort, endorsed by the 2012 General Assembly, to create 1001 new worshipping communities from 2012 to 2022.
McDonald-Burkman wrote in her ruling that for the court to make an independent assessment of whether Dermody had committed ethics violations “would necessitate interpreting court doctrine and policies, which is impermissible under the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.”
The appeals court panel — presiding Judge Glenn Acree, along with Judges Sara Walter Combs and Debra Hembree Lambert – essentially agreed with that interpretation.
Related article: Presbyterian Church (USA) wins ethics case with wider implications, by Earle Cornelius, Lancaster Online