FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Fathers don't sue their stepsons for defamation every day. Even less often do pastors of large churches in California's Central Valley sue their stepsons for what they term a "cyber-bully hate campaign."
But Bob Grenier, the senior pastor at Calvary Chapel in Visalia, Calif. - and an author and Christian radio host - did exactly that. Grenier and his wife Gayle sued Alex Grenier, Gayle's son from a previous relationship and whom Grenier raised from the age of three, for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress after Alex created a website detailing his life with Pastor Bob.
The family portrait Alex paints in his website - which is still up and occasionally updated - is not a flattering one. According to Alex and co-defendant Tim Taylor, a one-time member of the Calvary Chapel Visalia flock, Pastor Bob emotionally and physically abused the four Grenier brothers and sexually molested one of them.
Alex's website also details supposedly well-known instances where the Greniers have used the church's money as their own personal slush fund and committed "spiritual abuse" of church staff and parishioners who didn't see or do things Pastor Bob's way. All the while, friends in the Visalia Police Department - where Pastor Bob is a volunteer chaplain - have either looked the other way or concluded after tepid investigations that the statute of limitations has run out for any crimes Grenier may have committed, according to the website.
Alex and Taylor filed a motion to strike the Greniers' lawsuit as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP. But while Tulare County Superior Court Judge Paul Vortmann concluded that the website's defamatory statements concerned issues of public interest and deserved protection - and that Pastor Bob was a limited-purpose public figure - he also held that the Greniers had shown enough defamation and emotional distress to prevail on their claims, and rejected the motion to strike.
All parties appealed to the Fifth Appellate District, which held on Wednesday that Vortmann got nearly all of seemingly conflicting aspects of his ruling right.
While the Greniers tried to paint Alex's Internet rantings as a private family squabble made public - and therefore not protected speech - the panel found that Pastor Bob's congregation had a community interest in at least some of the allegedly defamatory statements deserving of protection under one prong of the anti-SLAPP statute.
"Here, at a minimum, the issues raised by Alex and Tim's allegedly defamatory statements are of interest to the community made up of the church's members," Judge Herbert Levy wrote for the three-judge panel. "The number of members, ranging from approximately 1,000 to approximately 550, is large enough to qualify as a 'community' for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute. Considering that church members donate money to the church, allegations regarding theft and misuse of those funds is of concern to the membership. Such allegations could lead to discussion within the membership and the implementation of new financial standards. Further, as pastor of the church, Bob is the members' spiritual and moral leader. As such, allegations regarding Bob's character and fitness to serve as a pastor are of interest to the membership."
But the panel rejected Vortmann's finding that Grenier is a limited-purpose public figure under the anti-SLAPP statute, despite his roles as church pastor, author and radio host.
"Although Bob thrust himself into the public eye as an expert on the Bible and its teachings, that alone did not cause him to become a limited-purpose public figure in the context of this case," Levy wrote. "Bob's self-promotion as a spiritual leader guiding others on Christian morals did not open him up to public comment on private conduct that could be generally characterized as the antithesis of the morals he espouses, such as child abuse and theft. To hold that a member of the clergy can become a limited-purpose public figure on any issue relating to morality simply because of his or her profession would be equivalent to holding that being a member of the clergy makes one an all purpose public figure. Such an interpretation of the limited-purpose public figure doctrine is too broad."
In order to make that reach, Pastor Bob would have had to actively inject himself into a public controversy over the things Alex and Taylor accuse him of - child abuse and molestation, tax evasion and theft - something he has apparently never done, the panel found.
But key to the failure of their son's anti-SLAPP strike request, the Greniers made the minimum required showing that their defamation claims would likely succeed at trial.
"Alex posted comments accusing Bob of theft, drug dealing, drug smuggling and being a self-confessed felony child abuser. Tim stated that Bob 'molested his own son.' Thus, Alex and Tim made comments that can be reasonably interpreted as stating actual facts and that accuse Bob of criminal conduct. Bob alleges these statements are false. Therefore, Bob has established that his defamation claims have minimal merit," Levy wrote.
Similarly, statements made by Alex and Taylor on the website were "calculated" to cause the Greniers the emotional distress they are also suing for, the panel held.
"Bob and Gayle declared that their reputations are ruined, they do not want to leave their residence, they have considered moving away to establish a life of anonymity, and they fear for their physical safety. Therefore, Bob and Gayle made a sufficient prima facie showing that Alex and Tim's conduct was extreme and outrageous, was directed at them and that they suffered extreme emotional distress," Levy wrote, advancing the case toward trial in Vortmann's courtroom.
The Greniers and church leaders have consistently refused to comment on either the three-year-old lawsuit or the website's allegations, calling the affair a private family matter.
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