Why Process and Care Are Important: The Risks Created Over-Sharing a Report

A megachurch in Florida suspected their head pastor and his wife were engaging in fraud. The Church hired a law firm to investigate. When the firm reported fraud and spiritual abuse, the pastor and his wife resigned. But when the Report was published to the public, the couple sued for defamation. Hiring an attorney to handle an internal employee investigation carefully may save pain and cost of litigation. It’s important to understand the function of the attorney-client privilege.

The Investigation

A church hired a law firm to investigate questionable financial transactions made by their head pastor.1 In January 2022, the pastor and his wife were suspended from their positions with the Church. The firm conducted the investigation, which included interviewing witnesses and reviewing thousands of pages of documents. When the investigation concluded in April 2022, the firm sent the Church a 22-page report finding fraud, narcissism, and spiritual abuse.

But soon thereafter, the Church posted a link to the Report on the Church’s website, putting the information out to the world. With this act of dissemination, the head pastor and his wife claimed to have suffered embarrassment, humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional distress. They sued the Church, Trustees of the Church, and even the attorney who investigated for defamation, for conspiracy to defame, invasion of privacy, public disclosure of private facts, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy to invade privacy.

Although the investigation appears to have been handled like most—evidence was gathered, reviewed, and investigators made factual findings—the pastor and his wife alleged the investigators’ report was intentionally filled with false information and deliberate lies, and that the investigators did not fully consider all the information provided to them.

Things to Consider

When a church or employee conducts internal investigations of employees or members, it is beneficial for the employer to work with an attorney to maintain an attorney-client privilege. This way communications from the attorney during the investigation, reports that are drafted, and any factual determinations that may be harmful to someone’s reputation can remain confidential. In addition, most ministries and employers have a qualified privilege within a circle to discuss employment decisions and/or church discipline, to help them make the right decision. This privilege will not extend to telling the whole world.

It's also important to keep in mind that investigations are done to a standard of preponderance, or “more likely than not.” It’s a balancing test. When there has been no litigation such as a criminal trial, there is also a fairness question about revealing information that necessarily might not be true.

When an employer posts an investigate report online for the entire world to see, this act of dissemination may effectively waive the attorney-client privilege. Persons accused may be upset, but so may other witnesses or people bringing allegations, depending on how much sensitive information has been revealed about them. Posting factual findings online could potentially be defamation if the findings were intentionally false. Even if the report is based on solid evidence, there can be an invasion of privacy. Someone could still sue and cause the organization to expend substantial time and money defending the report’s veracity. Posting a report that shares a lot of confidential information is pretty risky.

When conducting an investigation, investigators should consider the consequences of the evidence they rely upon and the factual basis of the conclusions they reach. For example, if sensitive information about an employee comes into evidence, such as medical records or witness statements about the employee’s mental health, investigators will want to be extremely cautious about whether the evidence was lawfully obtained, whether the evidence is true, and whether the evidence should ever be published for the public. Relying on inaccurate evidence could unnecessarily harm someone’s reputation. This becomes much more harmful to individuals and dangerous to organizations when the report is publicly disseminated and everyone reads the sensitive information.

Once information has been posted online, the harm to the individuals may be hard to undo. And lawsuits, even when they are weak or even groundless, can be extremely time-consuming and costly employers. Even if they are ultimately dismissed, attorneys’ fees are rarely granted for defending such claims. Investigations should usually remain confidential for the protection of all the stakeholders, and organizations should think long and hard about public statements and revealing investigative reports.


1 https://ministrywatch.com/celebration-church-investigation-alleges-rampant-spiritual-and-emotional-abuse-and-fraud-by-former-head-pastor/.

Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations