Staff Columnist

Iowa court: Victim shaming is religious freedom

The Iowa Judicial Branch building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Iowa Judicial Branch building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Sometimes there just ought to be a better law.

Two women who sought civil relief from a Pella church and its leadership following years of sexual exploitation by the church pastor were told they cannot sue for defamation. A separate portion of one woman’s lawsuit was returned to district court for additional review.

In the ruling released Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court said elders of Covenant Reformed Church didn’t defame the women. Instead, the elders were expressing opinions and religious freedom when they labeled those victimized as “adulteresses” who should, like the pastor, be sent to prison.

The women were pursued by then pastor Patrick Edouard, presumably for spiritual counseling. Both women were married, as was Edouard.

One of the women was dealing with infertility, and Edouard questioned whether her husband was “meeting (her) needs.” He said her emotional problems stemmed from “sexual frustration” and that he could “protect” her by helping her release sexual energy.

The second woman, a sister-in-law to the first, was struggling with grief following the death of a family member and experiencing other stress factors. In addition to taking antidepressants, she also agreed to spiritual counseling, which soon evolved, according to court documents, into “regular meetings for Edouard to provide ‘healing’ through sexual activity.”

The two women weren’t the only congregants harmed by the pastor.

In 2012, Edouard was convicted on five sexual exploitation charges. He was sentenced to five years in prison and, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections, since has been released and now is completing a 10-year parole sentence.

In the civil suit, the women and their husbands alleged the church and its elders negligently declined to invite mental health counselors and clergy sexual abuse experts to the work with the congregation, blamed the victims (causing them more harm), negligently investigated misconduct, negligently supervised and retained the pastor, and made a number of defamatory statements against the victims.

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The district court issued three orders in the case, which were appealed. The second order focused on the defamation charges, and the ruling came down in favor of the church and elders.

Many of the statements, oral and written, made by church elders were deemed privileged because they were “communications between members of a religious organization concerning the conduct of other members or officers.” Others were written off as opinions, probably steeped in religious belief.

“While many may find (his) statement offensive, whether the women are victims or sinners in need of forgiveness is not objectively capable of proof or disproof,” the ruling reads. The sentiment repeats throughout the section on defamation.

While actions and inactions of the elders in relation to their church administrative duties will face further scrutiny, the ruling ends further debate on the issue of defamation. In short, victim shaming and blaming is allowed. Just keep it confined to church.

• Comments; @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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