Legal Question in Constitutional Law in Pennsylvania

Can I be held liable for a prayer request for a true event that wasn't read and the name of the person wasn't mentioned? I submitted a prayer request which was not read in the church. It involved an individual that harmed a child. The request was for the child and the mother. The individual's name who harmed the child was not mentioned. There were no untrue statements made. An elder must have made the assumption of who it was and told them. Now this individual is suing for defamation. Can the church or the people that told the individual there was a prayer request about them, be held responsible for their actions? Are they liable?

Asked on 7/16/13, 11:00 am

1 Answer from Attorneys

Edward Hoffman Law Offices of Edward A. Hoffman

I'd like more information, but from what you've written I'd say you could be held liable and the church cannot. (Note that I am not saying you *should* be held liable. Perhaps you shouldn't. But I see no legal reason why your case could not go to trial -- where the judge or jury might not believe your side of the story.)

Defamation is a false statement of fact made to a third party, which damages the reputation of the person about whom it was made. The statement does not have to identify that person by name; if the listener can figure out who it is about, that is enough.

You say that your prayer request contained "no untrue statements". You might be wrong about that, even if you firmly believe it. The request might also make some false statements implicitly if not explicitly. But for purposes of this answer I will assume you're right.

If what you wrote was entirely true, then you did not commit defamation. That means only that you deserve to win if you are sued. It does not mean you can't be sued in the first place, or even that you actually will win the case goes to trial.

Some types of statements are privileged and cannot support a judgment for defamation even if they are false and damage the other person's reputation. Statements made by a patient to a doctor about his health are one example. A client's statements to his lawyer about his case are another. There is also a privilege for statements between penitents and clergy, but it applies only to private conversations. (There are other requirements, but this is the one that matters for now.) You asked the church to read a prayer openly in front of the congregation. You clearly did not intend for its contents to be private. Your identity was the only secret you wanted the church to keep. The clergy-penitent privilege does not seem to apply here.

You asked whether the church or the individuals can be liable for discussing your request with the other person. I don't see how they could be. They could only be liable if they breached a legal or contractual duty to you. Unless you got them to promise you confidentiality before you gave them the information, I don't see why they would have been under such a duty. Further, they may have had an affirmative duty to intervene if they believed you were right. And even if they had no such duty, a court may well find that it was reasonable for them to try. In many states, that would make their actions privileged. I do not know whether Pennsylvania is one of those states.

You should probably meet with a local attorney to discuss your situation in more detail.

Good luck.

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Answered on 7/20/13, 5:16 pm

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