The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Defamation, Dissonance and Defense

I had been getting set to praise deposed former Bishop William Cox for his candor, based on this statement:
"I feel sorry that they felt they needed to do this," he said. "A more charitable thing to do would be to say, 'We recognize that you are now a member of the church in Argentina and ask God's blessing on your ministry.'" . . . A trial was never held, but the House of Bishops voted him out Wednesday for abandoning the communion of the church.

"Which I did," Cox said.
What a change from the obfuscation of the deposed bishop John-David Schofield, or for that matter, Rev. Robert Eaton who is, we think, within TEC, while linking to the website of the Southern Cone.

But, alas, the good bishop (well, in Argentina, at any rate), appears to have lawyered up, and is now claiming that the Presiding Bishop's announcement of the House of Bishops' deposition of him, based on a charge the truth of which truth he freely admitted to the press, has somehow defamed him--because of the alleged procedural defects in the deposition process.

OK, I've litigated defamation cases and, I have to say, I'm not getting it. A statement cannot be deemed defamatory unless it is a false statement that purports to be factual, and is discreditable to the subject. See Philadelphia Newsp., Inc. v. Hepp, 475 U.S. 767, 776 (1986). But where's the falsity, or the defamatory content?

The lack of a defamatory statement--an untrue statement reflecting discredit on Bishop Cox--seems clear to me; the only conduct imputed to the bishop is that he has abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church, and he has explicity admitted that such is the case. As to the alleged falsity stemming from the alleged flaws in the deposition process, the fact remains that the House of Bishops passed a resolution deposing him, by a formal vote on March 12. The claim, even if true, that the deposition was not in accordance with canon law, does not, of its own weight, render the statement factually untrue. The deposition would first need to be declared void--not merely reversed--by a body of competent jurisdiction. I am unaware of any body that could render such a declaration, and would be inclined to do so. The HOB could, I suppose, reverse itself, but that would not render the PB's statements false as of the date she made them. I'm not aware of any other body that could properly assert jurisdiction to declare the deposition void ab initio. I find it hard to believe that the civil courts would rule on such a question. This is particularly the case because, as I pointed out in my last post, the First Amendment prohibits courts from ruling on "purely religious concerns such as church governance or polity." See also Wolf v. Jones, 443 U.S. 595 (1979).

I will await with interest developments; either the pleadings in the threatened defamation suit, which will be instructive, at a minimum, or the good bishop's climbing down from the threat.

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