Pastor, Ex-Parishioners Guilty of Libel; No Damages Awarded

Article excerpt

Byline: Diana Wallace Daily Herald Staff Writer

In a verdict as complicated as the church scandal that led to it, a Wheaton pastor and three of his former parishioners were found by a jury to be both perpetrators and victims of libel.

But the court in Barnstable, Mass., also determined that no one in the case should pay or be paid monetary damages.

A unanimous jury found the three former parishioners guilty of libel against the Rev. Michael Rowe, now senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Wheaton.

Two of the women, Rona Hart and Tori Packer, were also found guilty of inflicting intentional emotional distress.

But a divided jury also found Rowe guilty of libel against his three former parishioners at Osterville Baptist Church in Cape Cod.

And Rowe's wife, Marjorie, was found guilty of inflicting intentional emotional distress, even though, in an unusual outcome, she was cleared of libel and slander in the dueling defamation lawsuits brought between the Rowes and former parishioner Cynthia Hinckley.

The mixed verdict stemmed from a defamation suit Hinckley, a former Sunday school teacher, filed three years ago. She accused the Rowes of attempting to discredit her after she came forward with claims that the pastor had made a romantic overture to her.

But the Rowes then filed their own suit against Hinckley, Hart and Packer to stop what they said was the women's own campaign of defamation against the Rowes.

During the three-week civil trial, the Rowes' attorney presented more than 100 letters written by the women he said defamed his clients. Some had been written to people in the larger church community on the East Coast who did not know the Rowes or the women. …