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Bandstra v. Covenant Reformed Church

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 1, 2018


          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Marion County, John D. Lloyd, Judge.

         Appellants appeal several summary judgment and discovery rulings in their civil suit against a religious entity. AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED.

          Roxanne Barton Conlin of Roxanne Conlin & Associates, P.C., Des Moines, for appellants.

          Michael W. Thrall of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Des Moines, and Frances M. Haas of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellee.

          Eugene Volokh of Scott & Cyan Banister First Amendment Clinic at UCLA School of Law, Los Angeles, California, and Jason D. Walke of Walke Law, LLC, Waukee, for amicus curiae International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc.

          CADY, Chief Justice.

         In this appeal, we address a number of claims within a lawsuit by two female parishioners and their spouses against a church based on claims of negligence and defamation involving sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated on the women by the church pastor and the subsequent response by the governing body of the church. The district court granted summary judgment for the church on all claims except negligent supervision, but found the negligent-supervision claims brought by the female parishioners were barred by the statute of limitations. On appeal, we affirm the district court in part and reverse in part. We hold the Religion Clauses of our State and Federal Constitutions bar two of the negligence claims brought against the church, and the governing statute of limitations bars one parishioner's claim of negligent supervision. We further hold the claims of defamation were properly dismissed by the district court. On remand, we direct the church to produce certain documents for in camera inspection by the district court.

         I. Factual Background and Proceedings.

         A. Covenant Reformed Church.

         Covenant Reformed Church is a religiously conservative Dutch Reformed Christian Church located in Pella, Iowa. The Church is affiliated with the United Reformed Churches in North America and seeks to "teach and preach the Christian Gospel according to the Bible and the Doctrinal Standards, namely the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dorttrecht and the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession and Catechism." The Church is organized as a nonprofit corporation and is governed locally by a Consistory, which is comprised of a minister of the Word and a Board of Elders.

         The Board of Elders oversees the operations of the church and serves as both administrative and spiritual leaders. The board is comprised of sixteen "male confessing members" of the Church who are elected to serve by the congregation in staggered terms of three years. The Church does not require elders to complete any formal theological training or be ordained, and a male congregant need only "meet the biblical requirements for office and indicate their agreement with the Form of Subscription" to be deemed qualified to serve.

         Members of the Church are expected to submit to the elders with respect to matters of doctrine and spirituality, although members understand that they ultimately submit to God. Additionally, when a baptized member of the United Reformed Churches of North America makes a profession of faith, they promise to submit to the government of the Church and to its admonition or discipline should they become delinquent in either doctrine or in their personal life.

         The Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America describes the duties of an elder as follows:

The duties belonging to the office of elder consist of continuing in prayer and ruling the church of Christ according to the principles taught in Scripture, in order that purity of doctrine and holiness of life may be practiced. They shall see to it that their fellow-elders, the minister(s) and the deacons faithfully discharge their offices. They are to maintain the purity of the Word and Sacraments, assist in catechizing the youth, promote God-centered schooling, visit the members of the congregation according to their needs, engage in family visiting, exercise discipline in the congregation, actively promote the work of evangelism and missions, and insure that everything is done decently and in good order.

         The minister of the Word is an ordained pastor who "continue[s] in prayer in the ministry of the Word, administer[s] the sacraments, catechiz[es] the youth, and assist[s] the elders in the shepherding and discipline of the congregation." In order to serve as a minister of the Word, a candidate must demonstrate his "thoroughly reformed theological education, " including

his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, both in the original languages and in English translations, of the Three Forms of Unity, of Christian doctrine, Christian ethics and church history; of the Church Order, and of his knowledge and aptitude with regard to the particular duties and responsibilities of the minister of the Word, especially the preparation and preaching of sermons.

         Further, a candidate's personal life is examined. Once a minister of the Word is publically ordained before the congregation, he is "bound to the service of the churches for life and may change the nature of his labor only for weighty reasons, upon approval by his supervising council with the concurring advice of classis." However, the Church may remove a minister of the Word if the "pastoral relationship has been irreconcilably broken, and a minister of the Word or the council of the congregation he is serving desires to dissolve their pastoral relationship."

         The Board of Elders is responsible for supervising the Church's pastor. Supervising a pastor is not a matter of doctrine and is a secular administrative function of the board. The board supervises the pastor by (1) "discuss[ing] the preaching of the Word and mak[ing] sure it coincides with the Holy Bible, " (2) having "meetings twice a month [to] interact with [the pastor], [and] discuss things that need to be discussed, " and (3) "go[ing] on what [the board] call[s] house visitation calls and [asking] the parishioners how the pastor is pastoring them and whether there [are] concerns or recommendations that [the board] can do to improve things."

         B. Plaintiffs and Pastor Edouard's Sexual Exploitation.

         In 2003, the Church called Patrick Edouard to be its pastor and minister of the Word. Edouard was respected and considered a "dynamic" and "very talented speaker."

         Valerie Bandstra and her husband, Jason, were members of the Church at the time Edouard arrived. In 2005, Valerie and Jason were struggling with infertility, which was taking an emotional toll on Valerie. Upon learning of her struggles, Edouard began making unsolicited phone calls to Valerie's cell phone, inquiring into her personal life and fertility. In 2006, Valerie and Jason were in the process of seeking an international adoption, and Valerie decided to seek counseling from Edouard to help her cope. Edouard invited Valerie to comes see him "at his study, " which was in the basement of his home.

         When Valerie arrived for her first counseling session, Edouard showed her to his study in the basement. Edouard locked the door and began inquiring into Valerie's personal struggles. Edouard inquired into whether Jason was "meeting [her] needs, " then proceeded to grope and kiss her. The two then engaged in sexual intercourse, and Valerie has consistently maintained the sex was against her will. Following the encounter, Edouard continued to call Valerie and insist her husband was not meeting her needs. He informed Valerie her emotional struggles stemmed from "sexual frustration" and unhappiness in marriage. Edouard urged Valerie that he was "protect[ing]" her by helping her release her sexual energy. Additionally, Edouard urged Valerie that he believed God brought them together so she could use her good fortune to help him. Edouard asked for, and Valerie ultimately loaned him, $70, 000.

         In October 2009, Valerie's sister, Patty, confided in Valerie that Edouard had tried to kiss her during a counseling session. Once Valerie learned what Edouard had done to her sister, she realized he

was using his pastoral position and basically the trust that people put in him as a pastor to counsel and to basically recruit women to be counseling candidates so he could get them into a position of trust and vulnerability for the very purpose of abusing them.

         Soon after the conversation, Valerie called Edouard and told him he was using his position as pastor under the guise of counseling to have sexual relationships with women. Valerie then broke off contact with Edouard, although she did not inform the Church or the police of his conduct out of fear of retribution or not being believed.

         Anne Bandstra and her husband, Ryan (Jason's brother), were also members of the Church when Edouard was called to be pastor in 2003. In 2008, Anne was going through a difficult time. She felt overwhelmed by a recent death in the family, marital problems, and her special needs child. Anne had been prescribed antidepressant and anxiety medications, which she was taking.

         In April 2008, Edouard contacted Anne and suggested she counsel with him. Edouard invited Anne to his basement study and locked the door. He inquired into her personal life, her marital struggles, and whether she had engaged in premarital sex. Anne left the meeting to pick up her son, although she felt uneasy about Edouard's line of questioning. Edouard then began calling Anne frequently, asking to see her again. In May, during a counseling session, Edouard grabbed her and kissed her. Soon, the "counseling" evolved into regular meetings for Edouard to provide "healing" through sexual activity. Beyond sexual intercourse, Edouard would aggressively call Anne, sometimes ten to fifteen times a day.

         In May 2010, Edouard informed Anne of his previous interactions with Valerie and another woman, Sandy. After the conversation, Anne "started putting all the pieces together very quickly." She began to see "what had happened to Sandy and the abuse there" and could see "what happened to Valerie, to Patty, to Wanda, to multiple women that [were] in [her] church." Anne continued to meet with Edouard until December 10. On that day, Ryan arrived home and saw Edouard's vehicle parked outside the home. Although Ryan did not witness Anne and Edouard engaging in any sexual activity, he grew suspicious. That evening, Anne informed Ryan of Edouard's "counseling." Ryan then spoke to Jason, and the two brothers put the stories together and discovered Edouard's exploitation.

         On December 13, Jason and Ryan met with three elders and informed them of Edouard's misconduct with their wives. That same evening, Edouard came to a Church meeting and one elder, Mr. Hettinga, questioned him about his conduct with Anne. Edouard admitted to inappropriate conduct with Anne and voluntarily offered his resignation. The entire Board of Elders met later that evening and voted to accept Edouard's resignation.

         C. Church Response to Clergy Abuse Allegations.

         On December 15, the elders sent a letter to the entire congregation explaining they had accepted Edouard's resignation. The letter stated Edouard's "sins are of such a nature that they warrant our acceptance of [his] resignation, " but did not disclose the nature of Edouard's misconduct.

         On December 27, Valerie and Anne were called to appear before the elders. At the meeting, the women were asked to confess their sins with Edouard and ask for forgiveness, which they did. Valerie maintains she confessed to "idolatry, " and Anne maintains she did not confess to any specific sin, although the elders understood the women to have confessed to "adultery." The elders granted Valerie and Anne forgiveness. On December 29, the Consistory informed the congregation that it had voted unanimously to institute proceedings to depose Edouard from the office of minister of the Word.

         On January 14, 2011, the Board of Elders sent another letter to the entire congregation. It stated, in relevant part,

During the past four weeks the Consistory has learned of a prolonged period of sexual immorality and/or inappropriate contact between Patrick Edouard and multiple women congregant members. These members will remain unnamed by the Consistory and we admonish the congregation that they remain unnamed by you also. In love for the body of Christ, we must demonstrate our forgiving love for these members by being prudent with our speech and persistent in prayer for us all. We are thankful for those members who came before the Elders and eagerly desire to remain a part of us. We whole-heartedly accept them.

         Although the letter did not identify Valerie or Anne by name, the congregation had become aware of which women came forward with allegations against Edouard.

         A few days later, another member of the Church, Julie Hooyer, wrote to the elders and urged the elders to refrain from blaming Edouard's victims or referring to the misconduct as "affairs." Hooyer, a social worker, explained that blaming the women for Edouard's clergy abuse would significantly damage the women, as well as the congregation as a whole. Hooyer, along with Anne, Ryan, and other affected church members, soon thereafter attended an elder meeting to discuss their perspectives. They urged the elders to "form a task force to inform and counsel the Congregation, and [asked] that [the elders] write a letter to the Congregation using the terms clergy abuse and victims rather than adultery." The elders responded by asking Hooyer to submit her suggestions for the letter. After the members left the meeting, the elders discussed their ideas and noted "the perspective and suggestions had very little Biblical or theological content or viewpoint." The elders ultimately decided it was best to "request guidance from a Christian psychologist or an attorney."

         Following the meeting, Hooyer indeed sent some suggested language for a congregation letter to the elders. The elders declined to send her letter, "due in part to recommendations from law enforcement officials" and because they "felt the concepts she suggested were not necessarily Biblical and that the women involved using these concepts felt they were totally victims." In a letter circulated between the elders, the elders expressed their view that

a false dichotomy is established when it asserts that all blame is [Edouard's]. The victims are certainly sinned against, but they are also sinning. All the parties involved failed to walk in the light (I John 1) and the women, though not bearing the same degree of responsibility as does [Edouard], were certainly responsible for their behavior and need to be called to repentance for consenting to his advances and for violating their marital covenant. They sinned sexually, even though they can rightly in one sense be denominated as victims of Patrick's machinations.

         Many elders did not view Anne and Valerie's experiences as rape or sexual assault, and some even questioned whether Edouard engaged in any misconduct at all. One elder, Mr. Van Mersbergen, purportedly stated in a meeting that what happened to the women "was not clergy sexual abuse." Another elder, Mr. Hartman, stated during a meeting that "[g]rooming is a word made up by professionals. In reality, it is temptation. These women fell into temptation and they sinned." During a home visitation, another elder, Mr. Van Donselaar, stated, "Our only wish is that the women would admit what they did was wrong and ask for forgiveness like Patrick did." He further explained, "If Edouard goes to jail, there are four women who should go to jail as well." On another occasion, Van Donselaar spoke with Ryan on the phone and informed him there was "sin on both sides" and that Edouard's conduct "was not clergy sexual abuse." On yet another occasion, Von Donselaar stated to other members of the congregation that "Edouard is more repentant than any of these women will be."

         In the summer of 2011, the elders discussed inviting Dr. Diane Langberg, an expert in clergy sexual abuse, to consult with the Church. During the elder meeting, there was a motion to include in the invitation "the phrase that the women committed . . . and confessed to adultery with Patrick Edouard and were forgiven at the time of their confessions." The elders ultimately requested that Dr. Langberg come to the Church and "fully support the actions they had taken at that time." Dr. Langberg declined, citing the elders' reluctance to view the women as victims. In September, the elders again voted to invite Dr. Langberg to meet with the elders once Edouard's criminal trial was finished. Ultimately, Dr. Langberg never visited the Church.

         In July of 2012, Valerie and Jason left the Church. Anne and Ryan followed suit two months later.

         D. Edouard's Criminal Conviction.

         In the meantime, Edouard was charged with three counts of sexual abuse in the third degree, in violation of Iowa Code section 709.4(1) (2011), four counts of sexual exploitation by a counselor or therapist, in violation of Iowa Code section 709.15(2)(c), and one count of engaging in a pattern or practice of sexual exploitation by a counselor or therapist, in violation of Iowa Code section 709.15(2)(a). A jury trial began on August 13, 2012. Both Valerie and Anne testified. Edouard also testified in his defense, maintaining all sexual activity was consensual, and he never provided mental health services.

         The jury convicted Edouard of the five sexual exploitation charges and acquitted him of the three sexual abuse charges. He was sentenced to five years in prison. We affirmed his case on appeal, concluding in relevant part that sufficient evidence existed to support a conviction of sexual exploitation. See State v. Edouard, 854 N.W.2d 421, 439 (Iowa 2014), overruled on other grounds by Alcala v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 880 N.W.2d 699, 708 & n.3 (Iowa 2016). In rejecting a constitutional challenge to the sexual exploitation statute, we explained "the relationships between Edouard and each of the four women did not involve full and mutual consent. In each case, Edouard used- misused-his position of authority as a counselor to exploit the vulnerabilities of his victim." Id. at 444. We concluded "[t]he relationships were of a kind where 'consent might not easily be refused.' " Id. (quoting Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 578, 123 S.Ct. 2472, 2484 (2003)).

         E. Civil Proceedings.

         On December 7, 2012, Valerie, Anne, Ryan, and Jason brought a civil suit against Edouard, the Church, United Reformed Churches in North America, and several named elders. The plaintiffs subsequently dismissed the claims against United Reformed Churches in North America and Edouard.

         Following a number of amended petitions and voluntary motions to dismiss, the plaintiffs ultimately allege the Church and elders (1) negligently declined to invite mental health counselors and clergy sexual abuse experts to work with the congregation; (2) negligently blamed the women for their sexual exploitation, causing them severe emotional harm; (3) negligently investigated Edouard's misconduct following plaintiffs' complaints; (4) negligently supervised and retained Edouard; and (5) made a number of defamatory statements against Anne and Valerie. Throughout the duration of the suit, defense counsel and plaintiffs' counsel engaged in a number of discovery disputes, resulting in the district court reviewing a significant number of documents in camera and issuing twelve separate discovery rulings.

         The district court issued three summary judgment orders. The first concluded the elders individually were immune from suit under Iowa Code section 504.901, which grants immunity to "a director, officer, or member of a [nonprofit] corporation . . . for any action taken or failure to take any action in the discharge of the person's duties, " except in four specific instances. Iowa Code § 504.901 (2013). The court concluded the elders could not be held liable for any actions taken pursuant to their duties in governing a nonprofit corporation. The court then found the doctrine of issue preclusion could not be applied to the question of whether Valerie or Anne consented to their encounters with Edouard, as the jury did not specifically find, as an element of the crime of sexual exploitation, that the women did not consent to the encounters.

         In the second order, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Church on the plaintiffs' defamation claims. The court found that all but two identified statements were qualifiedly privileged and could not give rise to a defamation action. The remaining statements, the court determined, were protected opinion statements incapable of being proven true or false. Further, the court found that no statements were made with actual malice, and thus, the plaintiffs could not overcome the qualified privilege.

         In the final order, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Church on all negligence claims, except Ryan and Jason's negligent-supervision claims. The court found the First Amendment barred plaintiffs' first two negligence claims. Next, the court found that, First Amendment concerns notwithstanding, summary judgment was appropriate for the negligent-investigation claim, as the elders accepted Edouard's resignation within hours of hearing of the allegations. Finally, the court determined that both Anne and Valerie's negligent-supervision claims were barred by the statute of limitations, as both women were aware of Edouard's misconduct more than two years before filing suit.

         Plaintiffs moved for the district court to reconsider its rulings with respect to their negligence claims. The plaintiffs urged that the district court did not consider the continuing-violations doctrine, which would place Anne and Valerie within the statute of limitations. Although the Church contested whether the issue was preserved, the court nevertheless reached the issue. The court concluded the record did not demonstrate that the plaintiffs were incapacitated in bringing an action against the Church. Further, the court found that Iowa had not adopted the continuing-violations doctrine, and thus, the court was without jurisdiction to apply it here.

         Plaintiffs appealed, and we retained the case.

         II. Standard of Review.

         We review a district court's summary judgment ruling "for correction of errors at law." Walderbach v. Archdiocese of Dubuque, Inc., 730 N.W.2d 198, 199 (Iowa 2007). Summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact." Id. (quoting Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.981(3)). When reviewing a district court's ruling, we view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 199-200.

         "Whether the elements of issue preclusion are satisfied is a question of law." Winger v. CM Holdings, L.L.C., 881 N.W.2d 433, 445 (Iowa 2016) (quoting Emp'rs Mut. Cas. Co. v. Van Haaften, 815 N.W.2d 17, 22 (Iowa 2012)). We review applications of evidentiary privileges for correction of errors at law. State v. Richmond, 590 N.W.2d 33, 34 (Iowa 1999). Our review of discovery matters is for an abuse of discretion. Willard v. State, 893 N.W.2d 52, 58 (Iowa 2017). We will not disturb the court's conclusions unless the "ruling 'rests upon clearly untenable or unreasonable grounds.' " Id. (quoting Jones v. Univ. of Iowa, 836 N.W.2d 127, 139 (Iowa 2013)).

         III. Analysis.

         A number of issues have been properly raised on appeal for our review: (1) Whether the Religion Clauses of the United States and Iowa Constitutions bar plaintiffs' negligence claims, (2) whether summary judgment was erroneously granted on plaintiffs' negligent-investigation claim, (3) whether the two-year statute of limitations bars Valerie and Anne's negligent-supervision claims, (4) whether the district court erred in dismissing plaintiffs' defamation claims, (5) whether Edouard's criminal conviction permits plaintiffs in this suit to offensively preclude any argument that the women consented to the encounters, (6) whether the district court erred in applying the clergy privilege during discovery, and (7) whether the district court abused its discretion with respect to the production of numerous identified discovery documents. We consider each issue in turn.

         A. ...

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