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Former Nun Loses Defamation Appeal

CHICAGO (CN) - A former nun must pay for defaming two men who once supported her devotions, but she cannot be enjoined from making any statements at all about them again, the Seventh Circuit ruled.

In 1956, Sister Mary Ephrem, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, claimed to have experienced an apparition of the Virgin Mary in which Mary told her, "I am Our Lady of America."

Inspired by her visions, she formed a contemplative cloister devoted to Our Lady of America and lived there with other sisters until her death in 2000. The sisters took simple vows, but not the solemn vows that distinguish nuns from sisters.

Ephrem, who was born Mildred Neuzil, willed all her property to Sister Mary Joseph Therese, who also took over their Fostoria, Ohio-based congregation.

Kevin McCarthy and Albert Langsenkamp approached Sister Therese in 2005 to help support her devotions, but the trio had a falling out two years later and wound up in federal court, with each side accusing the other of theft, fraud and defamation.

The court record identifies the religious sister by her birth name, Patricia Fuller.

Paul Hartman, a retired postal inspector, came to Fuller's aid, and emailed leaders of the Catholic Church denouncing McCarthy and Langsenkamp. He also posted his denunciation on his blog, describing the two men as "two sharks from Indianapolis," who had "hijacked the devotion from Sister Joseph Therese and Our Lady o f America Center, all for their personal profit and gain."

McCarthy and Langsenkamp accused Fuller and Hartman of defaming them, by claiming online that they swindled Fuller for $750,000, forged her signature to seize control of the Our Lady of America website, and stole a statue of Our Lady of America.

Fuller counterclaimed that plaintiff were indeed responsible for these deeds, and allegedly defamed her by called her a "fake nun."

McCarthy did not deny this last claim, but presented a statement from the Holy See, the governing body of the Roman Catholic Church, declaring that Fuller is no longer a nun or a religious sister.

The Seventh Circuit agreed with McCarthy that the court, a secular body, could not decide whether Fuller was a nun or not.

The Holy See, in response to the appeals court's request, submitted a 51-page brief affirming that Fuller was not a member of any religious organization recognized by the Vatican.

A jury later ruled in McCarthy and Langsenkamp's favor, awarding them $150,000 in compensatory damages, and $200,000 in punitive damages.

The district court also issued an injunction forbidding Fuller and Hartman from making any statements similar to the nine defamation claims submitted to the jury.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit upheld the damages award, but vacated the injunction.

"An injunction against speech harms not just the speakers but also the listeners. The injunction in this case is so broad and vague that it threatens to silence Fuller and Hartman completely," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner said, writing for the three-judge panel.

The jury's decision in plaintiffs' favor did not indicate which charges of defamation they believed had been proved, whether just one or all nine.

"The judge could have based the injunction on his own assessment of the evidence, since the issuance of an injunction is the responsibility of the trial judge rather than of the jury. But he didn't do that; he accepted the plaintiffs' formulation of the injunction without considering the defendants' response, because it was untimely, even though the preamble to the injunction was a patent violation of the First Amendment," Posner said.

U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Sykes concurred in the majority's opinion, but said that she would not allow the lower court the opportunity to amend the injunction.

"We have no idea which specific statements the jury found to be false and defamatory; we have only the equivalent of a general verdict that the defendants are liable for defamation. That kind of verdict doesn't contain the necessary factual findings to support the issuance of a permanent injunction," Sykes said.

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