Appeals Court Rules Against Ex-Pastor In Sexual Harassment Case
An Illinois appellate court ruled Tuesday that a former Bloomington pastor shouldn’t be allowed to sue his church for defamation because its internal investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him was constitutionally protected.
The McLean County case dates back to 2012, when the Rev. Charles Orr was accused of sexual harassment by a female candidate to become a minister within the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Orr was pastor of Wayman AME Church in Bloomington at the time of the allegation.
The woman filed a complaint with the church. Orr later sued the church and church leaders in McLean County court for defamation and “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” alleging his reputation was damaged. In response, the church said any communications about the allegations were proper because they occurred within the church’s internal disciplinary process.
This week the Fourth District Appellate Court sided with the trial court, which found that the ecclesiastic abstention doctrine applied. That legal doctrine generally stops courts from interfering with how churches govern and discipline their clergy.
“We agree … that resolving this dispute under neutral principles of law (as sought by Orr) would interfere with AME Church’s internal disciplinary proceedings,” Appellate Judge Robert J. Steigmann wrote. “Accordingly, we are bound to step aside and permit the church to consider the authenticity of (the) claims of sexual harassment.”
Orr failed to show that church leaders shared the woman’s allegations with anyone outside the internal disciplinary process, the appellate court found.
“Religious organizers are free to establish their own rules, regulations, and tribunals for disciplining clergy and adjudicating religious disputes,” Steigmann wrote.
A church leader testified previously that the church’s internal investigation was not yet resolved because of the pending lawsuit.
Orr later moved to Iowa and is no longer pastor at Wayman AME Church. Current Wayman AME Church pastor Rev. Brigitte A. Black declined to comment Wednesday.
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