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UMC Pastor Wins Defamation Suit Against Parishioner

A now-retired pastor from Virginia won a verdict of over $200,000.

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Retired United Methodist Church (UMC) minister Patsy Tony was recently awarded $241,200 in a defamation suit against former parishioner Norma Jean Polley.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash

Stafford County Circuit Judge Michael Levy presided over the nonjury trial and ruled in favor of Tony on October 10, 2023.

Defamation lawsuits brought by pastors are not uncommon as a brief search of the MinistryWatch website shows. However, according to the Church Law & Tax website, because ministers are considered public figures, a pastor suing for defamation must prove the defamatory remarks were made with malice.

Tony, who served as pastor of St. Matthias United Methodist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, asserted in her lawsuit that Polley published “malicious and defamatory falsehoods” to the congregation in February 2017.

She also claimed that Polley made defamatory statements about Tony to her supervisors in the UMC that damaged her “professional reputation and emotional well-being.”

Additional defendants Mary Lou Pitzer and Valerie Pitzer Wick were named in the original suit, but Tony said the law firm representing her, Tremblay & Smith, advised her to concentrate the legal efforts on Polley, who doubled-down on the accusations during her deposition.

The impetus for the defamatory letter sent to the congregation, according to the court filings, seemed to be the removal of Pitzer from her position as the treasurer for St. Matthias. The lawsuit claims that Pitzer blamed Tony for the decision to request her resignation as treasurer.

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“Pitzer concocted a plan to defame [Tony] as retribution for her embarrassment at being asked to resign as treasurer,” it added. An audit of the church’s financial records conducted in 2017 showed that some of the treasurer’s records were “disorganized” and did not follow “normal accounting procedures.”

According to the lawsuit, Pitzer collaborated with Wick and Polley to write and mail a “hate letter” to the congregation that accused Tony of mismanaging church funds and admitting incompetence in knowing “nothing about finance.”

The letter was also sent to Tony’s supervisors in the UMC, Ted Smith and Bishop Sharma Lewis, the lawsuit states.

Tony says she was reluctant to bring the lawsuit. “I wish there had been another way that we could have solved this situation apart from involving the civil courts,” Tony told MinistryWatch.

But she claims that “the constant unending abuse” by members of the congregation, as well as “severe bullying and abuse from my immediate supervisor, Rev. Ted Smith” caused her to end her ministry employment and seek legal counsel.

Annual evaluations of Tony’s service to St. Matthias as the congregation’s pastor were generally positive. The last evaluation from 2017 stated, “Pastor Pat is a beacon of hope in a dark world.” It suggested Tony could spend more time on “self-care” and develop tools for “managing conflict and dealing with difficult people.”

It added, “St. Matthias has a long documented history of presenting tough challenges for clergy as well as other leaders.”

Tony is now a retired UMC Elder in good standing in the Virginia UMC Conference, she said. “The VA Conference Board of Ordained Ministry granted my request for honorable retirement, effective July 1, 2018.”

Polley’s attorney and guardian ad litem both objected to the final judgment order granting Tony the $241,200 award.

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Kim Roberts

Kim Roberts is a freelance writer who holds a Juris Doctorate from Baylor University. She has home schooled her three children and is happily married to her husband of 25 years.