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Court Revives Pastor’s Defamation Lawsuit

(CN) - A New Mexico pastor can sue parishioners from his church for defamation after they published an anonymous letter that accused him of having sex with minors, a state appeals court ruled.

The Rev. Walter F. Smith III, who presided at St. Francis Episcopal church in Rio Rancho, N.M., filed the lawsuit against four members of the church vestry: Will and Denise Durden and William and Marion DeVries.

The parishioners had gone to the diocese with their concerns about Smith's ability to lead the church, and they presented the diocese with an anonymous letter alleging that Smith had engaged in inappropriate acts with minor members of the church.

After the vestry published this letter to other members of the church, Smith took them to Bernalillo County District Court.

The lower court granted the defendants summary judgment, dismissing Smith's claim on the basis that he failed to prove damage to his reputation.

The New Mexico Appeals Court overturned the decision, ruling that Smith did not have to prove injury to his reputation. The parishioners failed to disprove the pastor's claim of suffering humiliation and mental anguish, which could have hurt his reputation, according to the appellate ruling.

"We agree with plaintiff that defendants did not meet their initial burden of making a prima facie showing to refute plaintiff's claim that he suffered actual injury in the form of personal humiliation and mental anguish," Judge Timothy Garcia wrote for the court. "Plaintiff is entitled to proceed with his defamation claim against defendants by proving actual injury and damages."

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