Suburban megachurch Harvest Bible Chapel has indicated it will withdraw its defamation lawsuit accusing former church workers and others of publishing false information about the church and its finances and administration.
On Jan. 7, the church posted a note on its website, saying it would drop the three-month-old legal action after a Cook County judge rejected the church’s request to stop further discovery while the court was weighing the defendants’ motions to dismiss and to bar the defendants from publishing certain information turned over the by the church as part of the discovery process.
“On advice of counsel, we still believe their actions to be illegal. However today the court ruled, contrary to expectation and legal precedent, that it would not stay further discovery while the case is under defendants’ motions to dismiss, nor would it restrict the publicizing of that discovery during the trial process,” Harvest wrote on the church website.
“Recent events have made it clear that any further private content subpoenaed from third and fourth parties will likely be publicized online. Case law contains many legal precedents related to restricting these actions, yet the court ruled against our motions in both instances.
“The result is that even if we filed a motion to reconsider, even if we amended the complaint to exclude private matters sensitive to some third parties, the court appears unwilling to protect our many friends, including those with whom we seek to reconcile. In good conscience we cannot knowingly subject innocent people, in many instances against their will, to a full subpoena process.”
According to Cook County court records, the church has not yet formally filed a motion to withdraw or dismiss the lawsuit.
Harvest filed suit in mid-October in Cook County Circuit Court against defendants Ryan and Melinda Mahoney and Scott and Sarah Bryant, ex-Harvest members and employees affiliated with a blog known as The Elephant’s Debt, and writer and radio host Julie Roys.
In the lawsuit, Harvest, accused the bloggers of publishing false and defamatory information concerning Harvest’s finances and governance, including claims Harvest had been $70 million in debt in 2010 and escaped bankruptcy in 2006. The church also said the website falsely portrayed Harvest founder and pastor James MacDonald as financially unstable — including allegations of a gambling problem — and improperly published views of several former elders, saying they were given a disproportionate platform relative to the dozens of elders in good standing.
Further, the lawsuit asserted The Elephant’s Debt had published false information about McDonald’s control of the church’s board of elders, which governs the church and its finances.
The lawsuit accuses Roys, who was not a member of the church, of using her radio program and website, and her position as a journalist, to improperly attack the church and spread “gossip.”
The defendants had responded with motions to dismiss. In the meantime, the parties had launched a discovery process, which was expanded to include subpoenaed documents and other information from others who were not parties to the lawsuit, including former members of the Harvest elder board.
In an “emergency motion” filed Dec. 14, and other related motions that followed, Harvest asserted the defendants had abused the discovery process to obtain information that would have otherwise been unavailable to them, and then had published the information before the judge had a chance to determine if it should be released.
The church asked the judge to stay that discovery process and protect further information from being released.
In response, Roys asserted the motion merely indicated Harvest was attempting to protect itself from information which could be damaging from becoming public.
“Justice does not allow a plaintiff to smear a defendant in the media, claim it has nothing to hide, and then cloak the very records that reveal the truth via a protective order,” Roys’ attorney wrote in a response to the Harvest emergency motion, filed Dec. 17.
On Jan. 7, Cook County Judge James P. Flannery sided with the defendants, refusing Harvest’s request. The judge’s order did not explain in writing his reasons for denying the motion.
Harvest is represented in the action by attorney Michael J. Young, of Westchester.
Roys is represented by attorney Charles L. Philbrick, of the firm of Rathje Woodward LLC, of Wheaton.
The Elephant’s Debt defendants are represented by the firm of SmithAmundsen LLC, of St. Charles.