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Contemporary Mission Inc. v. New York Times Co.

decided: March 16, 1988.

CONTEMPORARY MISSION, INC., REVEREND PATRICK J. BERKERY, REVEREND ROBERT J. CASSIDY, REVEREND JOHN F. COYNE, AND REVEREND JOHN T. O'REILLY, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE



Appeal by Contemporary Mission, Inc., and four of its member priests from judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Vincent L. Broderick, J., dismissing, on motion by The New York times Company for summary judgment, a defamation action against the newspaper arising from a November 1, 1980 article entitled "Westport Priests Beset by Church and U.S. on Status." Affirmed.

Feinberg, Chief Judge, Timbers and Kearse, Circuit Judges.

Author: Feinberg

FEINBERG, Chief Judge:

Contemporary Mission, Inc., a not-for-profit organization of Catholic priests with its principal place of business in Connecticut, and four of its member priests -- Father Patrick J. Berkery, Father Robert J. Cassidy, Father John F. Coyne and Father John T. O'Reilly (collectively, the priests) -- appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Vincent L. Broderick, J., dismissing, on motion by The New York Times Company (the Times) for summary judgment, appellants' defamation action against the Times. That action was based upon an article in the November 1, 1980 edition of The New York Times (the Times) entitled "Westport Priests Beset by Church and U.S. on Status" (the article). For the reasons given below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I. Background

The underlying facts of this case, which are described in greater detail in Judge Broderick's thorough opinion reported at 665 F. Supp. 248 (S.D.N.Y. 1987), can be summarized as follows. On November 1, 1980, the Times published an article, written by Times reporter Diane Henry, which described certain religious and business controversies involving Contemporary Mission and its member priests. The article stated that the priests, who were living in Westport, Connecticut, "with all the trappings of wealth," had until recently been "supporting themselves with a large tax-exempt mail-order business" offering various self-improvement products. The article stated that the priests' religious status was being challenged by officials of their own church and by several governmental agencies. It addressed, among other things, (I) recent challenges by the Internal Revenue Service, the United States Postal Service and the State of Connecticut to Contemporary Mission's mail-order business; (2) allegations made nearly a decade earlier that documents submitted by three of the priests in support of their 1971 ordinations had been forged; and (3) questions concerning the priests' current religious status.

Shortly after publication of the article, appellants brought this diversity action seeking $20 million in damages. After a series of amendments to their complaint, appellants ultimately challenged the following 14 statements in the Times article as libelous (the quoted language is taken verbatim from the second amended complaint):

1. Church officials in St. Louis, led by John Cardinal Carberry, accused the Priests [of the Mission] of forging documents for their ordinations.

2. In a recent interview, Msgr. Andrew T. Cusack, an official with the Bridgeport (Ct.) Diocese, which now has jurisdiction over the mission (sic) priests, said they were 'inactive' and 'seeking reconciliation.' In a letter to the Government, he also said they were not recognized by the diocese and were 'unable to function as Catholic priests.' But the Postal Service says it has another letter, allegedly sent by the monsignor, that says 'their ordination and current canonical efforts have the full recognition of the church.' The monsignor has denied writing that letter.

3. But in 1977, the State of Connecticut got a cease and desist order against them for failing to deliver merchandise.

4. Ordinations Called Forged.*fn1

5. The group's activities prompted some church officials to call them clerical dilettantes, and Cardinal Carberry refused to ordain them. Father Berkery had already been ordained, and the others were ordained in 1971 in Connecticut by a visiting Bishop from Ghana.

But that same year the Bishop, the Most Rev. Peter K. Sarphong (sic) later wrote to the Vatican saying he had been 'misled' when he accepted documents supporting the ordinations of the priests, which St. Louis officials said had been forged.

The mission priests disclaimed knowledge of the forged documents, and they accused Cardinal Carberry, who is now retired, of conducting a smear campaign against them.

Since then the priests have been in a kind of canonical limbo, and it is difficult to clearly determine their status.

6. In a separate action, the Postal Service charged them with fraud in the bath-oil sales.

7. As evidence of the honesty of their operation, the priests point to a Federal report saying the United States Attorney's office in Connecticut had declined, in January 1979, to prosecute charges of mail fraud against them because "the firm does supply the products in most instances."

8. Father O'Reilly later married the lead singer in the touring company and is now divorcing her.

9. Under normal circumstances, Father O'Reilly's marriage would mean his automatic excommunication from the church, according to experts on canon law. But Father O'Reilly said he had switched to the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church, which allows married priests.

10. Five Roman Catholic priests whose religious status is being challenged by officials of their own church, as well as by three Federal agencies, say they have been misunderstood and harassed because they are unconventional clerics.

11. The priests, who insist they are not rich, argue that there is no law prohibiting churches from running a mail order house, that they run an honest business and have used the money to finance their work. Yet the Mission's vast public court record with the Government, individuals and corporations raises questions about whether the priests may have cloaked a profitable business in the guise of a religious, tax-exempt organization.

12. The priests say that Mission is a pious society and that its members perform all traditional priestly functions and good works, but other priests contradict them.

13. In St. Louis a decade ago, the seminarians dreamed of using profits from their musical talents to support their labors for the poor.

14. Father O'Reilly and Father Berkery said they had conducted many services at St. Catherine's Church in Greenwich, but the pastor of the church, the Rev. ...


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