Dan Herron, a PCA pastor—or teaching elder—accused of sexual harassment, says the women making claims against him are lying and has sued them for defamation. Several presbyteries have passed measures requesting the PCA intervene. “For an accused teaching elder to sue his accusers in a civil court—it is ugly,” said Steve Marusich, a pastor in the Central Indiana Presbytery who has been closely involved in the presbytery’s investigation.
As the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) discusses its response to abuse at its annual General Assembly this week, a case involving a pastor suing former congregants over allegations against him is making its way through civil court and the denomination’s own system.
Dan Herron, a PCA pastor—or teaching elder—accused of sexual harassment, says the women making claims against him are lying and has sued them for defamation. Several presbyteries have passed measures requesting the PCA intervene.
“For an accused teaching elder to sue his accusers in a civil court—it is ugly,” said Steve Marusich, a pastor in the Central Indiana Presbytery who has been closely involved in the presbytery’s investigation.
The country got a glimpse of defamation cases around abuse allegations with the recent Johnny Depp–Amber Heard trial, where the actor accused his former spouse of defamation over an op-ed that implied he had abused her.
After the ruling awarding Depp $10 million in damages, some legal experts worried that more abusers would use defamation as a strategy to silence victims. The threat of such lawsuits could discourage victims from coming forward.
While church disputes don’t usually turn into legal fights, Herron is among several pastors and ministry leaders who have filed defamation suits in recent years. These kinds of cases are costly and often drag out for years, grinding down victims and denominations trying to separately enforce church discipline. Civil proceedings during a church trial mean that witnesses in the church trial might be afraid of testifying for fear of being sued, or of other consequences in the civil trial. Civil cases also require extensive evidence gathering that might interfere with a church prosecutor’s investigation.
“Filing a civil suit—we just do not do that,” said Dave Haigler, a PCA ruling elder who works as a federal administrative law judge. “I don’t think there’s even anything in the BCO [the PCA’s Book of Church Order] about that; it just violates Scripture.” Elders referenced among other Scriptures the admonition in 1 Corinthians 6 to not take believers to court.
Haigler previously served for two terms on the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), which is essentially a high court for presbytery disputes. Haigler can’t remember the SJC taking original jurisdiction in a case like this, but this month the SJC agreed to try the case against Herron. That ecclesiastical investigation and trial will coincide with pastor’s civil case.
Over the past year, as more congregants are speaking up about sexual abuse and spiritual abuse, some of the accused are likewise pushing back in court.
In March, Colorado megachurch pastor Jonathan Wiggins of Rez.Church sued former staff and members for defamation over accusations that he was in a sexual relationship with an assistant pastor, among other allegations. The church leadership told the congregation it found “no moral, financial, or doctrinal failure” on Wiggins’s part.
In June, a Maryland pastor filed suit against three people, his son-in-law among them, over a blog full of allegations against him, including that he had urged a victim of domestic abuse to stay with her husband.