Another U.S. Pastor Sues for Defamation

Pastors do not like being accused of scurrilous behavior. According to Scripture, the remedy is to resolve such issues within the church (I Corinthians 6:1-7) but some American pastors prefer to sue their accusers in the civil courts, even if the accuser is another Christian or Christian entity. (see, e.g., my blog posts on July 15, 2022, and March 19, 2022)

The latest example is the Rev. Johnny Hunt, a long-time pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) who is now suing the SBC for defamation. He filed his case last week in a federal court in Tennessee. The SBC hired Guidepost Solutions to investigate how SBC leaders had dealt with sexual abuse; in its 2022 report, Guidepost mentioned an incident involving Rev. Hunt and a married woman, describing it as a sexual assault. Rev. Hunt, a former SBC president, had not previously disclosed the incident, and at first denied it, then claimed it was consensual.

Given the power imbalance, consent would be suspect here. Biblically, if it was consensual, it’s adultery, which is still a sin, just as assault is.

It is a bit ironic that his lawsuit by its very nature is disclosing his sinful behavior to an even wider audience, keeping alive his damaged reputation that might have otherwise faded from memory.

Another irony is that he admits in his legal complaint that he did indeed have an “inappropriate, extramarital encounter with a married woman.” Since truth is a defense to defamation, one wonders how he can support his claim that he was defamed. Perhaps he’s suggesting that adultery is not defamatory but sexual assault is. Biblically, they’re both sin. And, biblically, whether it’s adultery or assault, it should not be the subject of a civil lawsuit against other believers. Why not rather be wronged? Why not resolve it within the church, instead of in federal court?

Rev. Hunt is suing for damages. One wonders how money could make up for the negative publicity he has already received. He may instead be hoping for some kind of apology or retraction, but that’s not going to happen as long as this case is in litigation. I hope the SBC in its defense moves to transfer the case to a private church process where it belongs.


Apology for Disruptive Protests

The Honorable Stuart Kyle Duncan, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, was invited to speak at Stanford Law School last week, but hecklers prevented him from giving his talk, and U.S. marshals ended up escorting him out of the room. Two days later, he received a written apology letter from the Law School Dean, Jenny Martinez, and Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.

Judge Duncan was invited to speak by the Federalist Society, a conservative group. Students who disagree with Judge Duncan’s decisions on LGBTQ and trans-gender issues protested his appearance. According to the Stanford Daily, audience interruptions and booing continued throughout his first thirty minutes of speaking, causing him finally to stop and ask for an administrator to intervene. The associate dean for DEI then addressed the crowd, indicating her approval of their protests (“I’m glad this is going on here.”) The judge was never able to finish his speech.

The apology letter noted that students are “welcome to exercise their right to protest but not to disrupt the proceedings. In addition, staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so, and instead intervened in inappropriate ways that are not aligned with the university’s commitment to free speech.”

Judge Duncan accepted the apology, and said he was grateful for it.

It was appropriate for the dean of the law school and the university president to issue this letter jointly. It was issued swiftly, just two days after the incident. The letter identifies two errors, the students’ behavior and the administrator’s intervention. There is no statement of remorse or regret. Perhaps this is only an excerpt of the complete letter.

A good apology needs to describe steps the offender plans to take to ensure that this does not happen again. In an email to the law school community, the dean noted, “The way this event unfolded was not aligned with our institutional commitment to freedom of speech. The school is reviewing what transpired and will work to ensure protocols are in place so that disruptions of this nature do not occur again, and is committed to the conduct of events on terms that are consistent with the disruption policy and the principles of free speech and critical inquiry they support.”

Students are now protesting Dean Martinez’s apology to Judge Duncan. Presumably they want her to apologize for her apology.


A Good Business Apology

This blog usually reviews public apologies that fall short of the mark, but here’s one that has been praised: it was by Andrew Benin, chief executive of Graza, a small startup that sells olive oil. Graza started just a year ago, and this was its first holiday season. Apparently some gift packages arrived late, or poorly packaged, or with damaged labels. So Mr. Benin sent an email to everyone who had ordered Graza’s olive oils in the previous 60 days to apologize.

The subject line of the email was, “Learning from our mistakes.” This is a promising start, indicating that the writer knows that he made a mistake, and that he has ideas about how to prevent future mistakes – two critical elements of an effective apology.

He went on to acknowledge that the gift packaging was inadequate, that the company did not communicate well, and to say that he was sorry. A good apology lets the recipient know that the offender knows what they did wrong, and how that affected the recipient.

The final element of a good apology is some form of repair or restitution. In this case, the email offered a small discount on future orders of olive oil.

It landed well in the eyes of many recipients. One was Ben Cohen, whose shipment of Graza olive oil leaked and was poorly wrapped. He wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal that he was won over by Mr. Benin’s apology. Apparently hundreds of other recipients wrote Mr. Benin to thank him. “Thanks for your honesty,” one wrote back. “These messages go a long way,” another wrote.

The article notes that business apologies are tricky; research shows that repeatedly apologizing is actually worse for a business than not apologizing at all. Research also shows that the most effective apologies cost the business something, so a coupon or discount can be even more effective than an apology.

Mr. Cohen notes one of the ironies of a good apology: it can make the relationship better than it was before the unfortunate incident happened. This is true of inter-personal relationships, and it can be true of business/customer relationships too.

Kidnap Plotters Apologize

Kidnap Plotters Sentenced


Pete Musico offers an example of how not to give an apology. At his sentencing hearing in a Jackson, Michigan, court last week, he seemed to blame Congresswoman Maxine Waters for his plan to kidnap the Michigan governor. He and two co-defendants, all members of a Michigan militia group, were found guilty after a trial by jury of aiding a terrorist plot. His pre-sentencing statement, at least in the portions reported in the media, did not say anything about the impact of his crime on his victim, which was arguably not only the governor, but all elected officials.

In contrast, his co-defendant Paul Bellar did apologize to Governor Whitmer for his “highly inappropriate” comments, and apologized to his family as well. Both Mr. Musico and Mr. Bellar, along with a third co-defendant, Morrison, expressed regret for their poor judgment.

They each acknowledged a lapse in judgment, but somehow that doesn’t satisfy, leaving listeners believing that they still don’t understand the seriousness of what they did. They seemed contrite, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s due to remorse or to their impending incarceration. They will have years in prison to reflect on this.

Former Alameda CEO Apologizes

Caroline Ellison, the former CEO of Alameda Research, the crypto-trading firm connected with FTX, issued an apology when she plead guilty to fraud and other offenses in a New York federal court this week.

There was no public notice of the hearing, but a transcript was released yesterday. She agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation in exchange for the prospect of a lighter sentence.

“I am truly sorry for what I did. I knew that it was wrong. I want to apologize for my actions to the affected customers of FTX, lenders to Alameda, and investors in FTX. Since FTX and Alameda collapsed in November 2022, I have worked hard to assist with the recovery of assets for the benefit of customers and to cooperate with the government’s investigation. I am here today to accept my responsibility for my actions by pleading guilty.”

When the judge asked Ellison if she knew what she did was illegal, she replied, “Yes.”

She described how she and former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried “provided materially misleading financial statements to Alameda’s lenders.” Alameda, she said, lent a lot of money to Mr. Bankman-Fried and other FTX executives, then used FTX customer funds to finance its loans to Alameda. She said their quarterly financial reports obfuscated “the extent of Alameda’s borrowing.” She acknowledged that FTX’s investors were kept in the dark about the nature of the co-mingled relationship between FTX and Alameda: “I agreed not to publicly disclose the true nature of the relationship between Alameda and FTX.”

Plea deal apologies are notoriously suspect, but we can still scrutinize them for clues to good apologies. She takes responsibility, and doesn’t try to place all the blame on her former boyfriend, Mr. Bankman-Fried. She goes into detail regarding what she did wrong, and she acknowledges the various groups of people she hurt.

The statement, “I have worked hard to assist with the recovery of assets for the benefit of customers,” sounds too canned. We would prefer to hear something like, “I know lots of innocent people lost a ton of money because of my greed, and I’m going to do whatever I possibly can to try to get some of that back for them.”

There’s also no reason given for her new-found remorse, leaving us to assume that, had she not been caught, she wouldn’t be sorry.

But her statement makes their fraud sound much bigger, longer and more serious than what Mr. Bankman-Fried has said about it so far. It’s never easy to admit one’s mistakes, and Ms. Ellison has taken a step in the right direction.




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