DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that a church board engaged in protected free speech when it said two female members were “adulteresses” who gave into temptation after they were pressured into sex with the pastor.
“Plaintiffs have not adduced any evidence to demonstrate the elders were negligent in their communications or otherwise responsible for the story ultimately ending up in the press,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in the 49-page opinion.
Anne and Valerie Bandstra, along with their husbands, who are brothers, filed a lawsuit in 2012 against Covenant Reformed Church, alleging negligence and defamation stemming from their claims of sexual abuse and exploitation by a former pastor. The Bandstras are represented by Roxanne Conlin in Des Moines.
The church in Pella, Iowa, hired pastor Patrick Edouard in 2003. The alleged sexual abuse began in 2006 when Anne Bandstra claims he invited her to his basement study for “counseling” and engaged in non-consensual sexual acts with her.
In 2010, Anne’s sister-in-law Valerie told her husband about a similar incident and her husband contacted his brother, who reported the misconduct to three members of the board of elders at the church. The all-male, 16-member board oversees church operations and serves as administrative and spiritual leaders.
The elders called a meeting and Edouard admitted to “inappropriate conduct” with Anne. The board accepted his voluntary resignation.
The women were also called to a meeting where they were “asked to confess their sins with Edouard and ask for forgiveness, which they did,” according to court records.
Both women testified during a criminal trial in August 2012, at which a jury convicted Edouard of five sexual exploitation charges and acquitted him of three sexual abuse charges.
The Bandstra women say several elders defamed them in subsequent statements and letters sent to church members regarding the incidents, including one elder’s verbal statement that “these women fell into temptation and they sinned.”
The Bandstras say church leaders labeled them as “adulteresses.”
The district court dismissed the claims against the church and the Iowa Supreme Court mostly affirmed Friday.
Justice Cady wrote that the religion clauses in the Iowa and U.S. Constitutions bar the negligence claims.
“A court cannot dictate what teachings and services a church offers its parishioners. Nor can we disapprove of the elders deciding, pursuant to their duty as religious authorities, that the women would be best healed by simply confessing their ‘sins,’” he wrote.
The state high court also affirmed the dismissal of the Bandstras’ defamation claims, noting that “whether the women are victims or sinners in need of forgiveness is not objectively capable of proof or disproof.”
Cady wrote that 11 allegedly defamatory statements about the women were either “qualifiedly privileged” or “protected opinion and nonactionable.”
“The record demonstrates the elders sincerely believed that, pursuant to their faith, the women were in need of forgiveness, and Edouard’s criminal conduct was ‘sexual immorality,’” the ruling states.
The Iowa Supreme Court rejected all of the Bandstras’ claims except one, finding that Anne’s negligent-supervision claim was not barred by the statute of limitations.
All the other justices concurred with the opinion besides Justice Daryl Hecht, who did not participate.
Attorneys for the Bandstras and the church did not immediately respond Monday to email requests for comment on the ruling.