Church leaders cleared in court case
More informationRead the judgement from the Supreme Court website
The senior minister at Annandale and one of the parish councillors have been exonerated in a defamation case brought by a parishioner in the Supreme Court in Sydney.
60 year old Bruce Haddon took Rev Dominic Steele and parish councillor Evan Batten to court, claiming he’d been defamed in an email which was circulated to some members of the parish leadership group, Bishop Robert Forsyth and two diocesan officials.
Bishop Forsyth was also originally named in the suit but later dropped from the legal action.
The case was heard in 2010 and the judgement was issued almost a year later on Tuesday, 8th March.
The email concerned Mr Haddon’s behaviour , including an agreement that he not approach young women who were new to the congregation.
Mr Haddon had claimed it carried five defamatory imputations.
They were that he sexually harassed female members by introducing inappropriate sexual topics into his conversation with them and by inappropriately touching and kissing them.
Further he claimed the email imputed that his conduct warranted complaints being made against him that he had made unwanted sexual advances to female congregants.
Judge Carolyn Simpson in the Supreme Court found the email did carry those imputations, but not that he was a sexual predator or that he was unfit to be a member of his church as he behaved in an offensive manner towards some female members.
Judge Simpson upheld the church’s defence, saying she found the first three imputations to be substantially true.
In a 50 page ruling, the Judge said Mr Haddon had regularly and frequently imposed himself physically upon women members of the congregation, by kissing them and hugging them, which amounted to harassment.
The court heard he had been cautioned on more than one occasion that his conduct was offensive and unwelcome.
The judge also found the plaintiff had made offensive comments on anatomy and sexual matters to young female members of the congregation.
As well as upholding the substantial truth of the email, Judge Simpson ruled that the recipients were covered by ‘qualified privilege’, and that Mr Steele had acted reasonably in limiting the circulation of the email to those who were involved in implementing any decision concerning Mr Haddon.
Another claim, that the sending of the email was motivated by malice because of Mr Haddon’s theological views, was rejected.
The judge said it was clear there were disagreements over Mr Haddon’s “progressive, even radical, theological position’, which included the plaintiff’s views that Christian teaching on extra- or pre-marital sex was ‘cruel’.
However, the judge said she was equally satisfied that “his conduct towards women was similarly a major issue for them” (the church leadership).
“I do not accept that Mr Steele and Mr Batten misused the occasion for which privilege is permitted.”
Judge Simpson said there was no evidence that the plaintiff’s conduct was for physical sexual gratification, but “to establish himself as a mentor, or a guide, in a variety of ways, to young women”.
The Judge ruled that Mr Haddon should pay the defendants costs.
The Bishop of South Sydney, the Rt Rev Robert Forsyth issued a statement welcoming the ruling.
“We do not believe this matter should ever have been taken to court, but we are pleased that the actions of the minister and church officers have been completely vindicated.”
Photo credit: Sardaka