(CN) – Pedophilia allegations did not hurt a former priest’s reputation, so he cannot sue for defamation, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled.
While working as a priest at the St. Francis Episcopal Church in Rio Rancho, N.M., Walter Smith III faced opposition from members of the parish and vestry, an administrative group of lay parishioners.
One of the vestry members, Will Durden, compiled and published a packet of documents that included an anonymous letter accusing Smith of several acts of pedophilia. The packet also included other personal attacks against Smith, documentation about the parish’s financial problems and claims against Smith’s leadership.
After the documents were presented to the church standing committee, Smith heeded his bishop’s advice and summarized the claims for a congregation gathered at a Sunday service.
Smith filed suit in 2006 after the individuals behind the packet offered to make copies of the documents for inquiring parishioners. He named Durden and fellow vestry member William DeVries as defendants along with their wives in the parish, Denise Durden and Marion DeVries.
The Durdens and the DeVries moved in 2007 to dismiss the case, reasoning that Smith could not support a claim since he kept his job and his reputation did not suffer.
Smith countered that false accusations of pedophilia against a religious leader are always defamatory.
After a judge in Albuquerque dismissed the case, the New Mexico Court of Appeals reversed, finding that evidence of mental anguish and humiliation amounted ot injury.
But the New Mexico Supreme Court took a different view.
“We conclude that a plaintiff must first establish the prima facie case for defamation – which includes proof of actual injury to reputation – before a jury can award damages for mental anguish, humiliation or any of the other recoverable harms listed in [the statute],” Justice Patricio Serna wrote for the court.
“Because we acknowledge that the requirement to show actual injury to reputation may not have been clear prior to this opinion, however, we remand in order to allow plaintiff the opportunity to amend his complaint to raise other theories for recovery which may more appropriately provide redress for the injuries he alleges to have suffered,” he added.