- Introduction to “Sidebar Issues” that Broaden the Lawsuit’s Significance
- Grace Community Church Involvements
- Activities of Mr. O’Neal and BGBC Members After the Lawsuit
- Conclusions: Evaluating Mr. O’Neal’s Responses to the Court’s Decision
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NOTE: I split the Narrative Account into two parts. Page 02A Narrative Account and Analysis: The Lawsuit is for events directly related to court processes, from events leading up to the court case to the decisions and reactions to it. Page 02B Narrative Account and Analysis: “Sidebar Issues” explores other topics indirectly related to the legal process of the trial, but of direct interest to the spiritual abuse survivor community. While the timelines do overlap, I felt it would be easier to grasp the material in each if they were separate instead of all meshed together.
* * * * * * *
Introduction to “Sidebar Issues”
~ that Broaden the Lawsuit’s Significance ~
Under normal circumstances, it would seem obvious that the list of “key issues” in a legal case would be what the plaintiffs, defendants, judge, legal counsels, and any other witnesses contend with directly. However, the case of Beaverton Grace Bible Church v. Smith turned out to involve some significant “side issues.” Though not part of the court case itself, these set a larger context for its influence/impact. Many of them paralleled the course of the court case, but some are so complex that it seemed better to address them in a separate page.
So, this page continues the analysis begun on page 02A Narrative Account, but with a different emphasis. Instead of addressing issues affecting the outcome of the lawsuit, the issues here focus on how the lawsuit played out in the internet community, especially the spiritual abuse survivors’ movement. Many of the issues here deal with media, mainly, because this was a “citizen journalist” case involving alleged online defamation. Along similar lines, there were practical lessons for the online community. These included the power of “crowd-sourcing” information to distill out facts, observations, opinions, and perspectives; and the realities of “the Streisand Effect” when attempts to hushing things up backfire and create huge publicity.
But, because this lawsuit was also about religious issues, and particularly about spiritual abuse, other parties become crucial to specific questions about who said/did what in terms of Church impact. Some larger issues arose concerning such topics as: beliefs and practices of authoritarian leadership, antagonism against any criticism of ministry leaders as “God’s anointed,” and minimizing of survivors’s experiences of spiritual abuse by labeling these individuals as mere “disgruntled/troublesome congregants.”
Another series of issues involved … unanticipated … actions by the former plaintiffs and their supporters. These often aggressive-appearing actions raised larger issues about systems of abusive leadership, and questions about the plaintiffs’ attempting to find victory in the public eye when they lost their case in court.
Finally, because the focus in this page is different, so is the format. I will still give a general date range of when specific topics seem to emerge, but it won’t be as structured and formal as with the more timeline elements in the 02A Narrative Account page. Instead, it is organized more around the main parties involved and the lessons that emerged.
NOTE: The material I present in this entire section on sidebar issues interweaves fact, analysis, and commentary. That is in part because even the selection of what to include here represents my opinion about what is important versus merely incidental.
* * * * * * *
~ Grace Community Church Involvements ~
Questions of Grace Community Church Involvement in “Counseling” Mr. O’Neal to File the Lawsuit – February – June 2012
Introducing the Issues
In a Google Review posted on February 25, 2012 – three days after the lawsuit was filed – Mr. O’Neal claimed that he had received counsel from “a pastor on staff with Grace Community Church” (a Southern California mega-church led by John MacArthur) that he should file the lawsuit. Below is the text of his Google Review as appears on BGBC Survivors, minus the final sentence that refers readers to another review he wrote against Julie Anne Smith in 2009. (NOTE: This Google Review is no longer available on that site.)
Chuck O’Neal – Feb 25, 2012
DEFAMATION IS A CRIME: Pastor Chuck O’ Neal, his wife, his children, and Beaverton Grace Bible Church as a whole, have suffered JulieAnne’s hateful lying slander for well over three years. After seeking counsel from a pastor on staff with Grace Community Church (under Pastor John MacArthur) and reading him several excerpts from JulieAnne’s endless defamation, he recommended that we FILE A LAWSUIT in an appeal to Caesar as the Apostle Paul did when falsely accused of crimes against God and the state. The lawsuit has been filed in the Washington County courthouse. JulieAnne and many of those involved in her present and historic slander will be served within the week. Her many lies and vicious criminal accusations will not stand in the light of day in the Washington County courthouse or in the coming courtroom before God. OVER THREE YEARS AGO the reviewer known as JulieAnne or “BROWN” was Biblically put out of Beaverton Grace Bible Church for ongoing vicious slander. You can see my 2009 response to her in the reviews below. (emphasis added)
This specific statement by Mr. O’Neal about Grace Community Church (GCC) led to a number of interchanges and disputes as the various parties attempted to claim or disclaim this as fact, and deal with the consequences. Here is an overview of key questions and complex issues that arose about the apparent involvement of GCC in encouraging or endorsing the lawsuit (or not):
Before the Lawsuit was Filed
- Based on Mr. O’Neal’s Google Review statement of February 25, 2012, who did he speak with, and did any GCC staff member “counsel” him to file the defamation lawsuit, as he claimed?
- There were conversations between Bill Shannon (who serves at GCC as Pastor, Discipleship Counseling, and Staff Elder) and Mr. O’Neal. Did these involve overt “counsel” to Mr. O’Neal about filing the lawsuit or withdrawing it?
- Is it possible that any staff communications with Mr. O’Neal may have been misinterpreted as “official” GCC support his filing the lawsuit?
After the Lawsuit was Filed
- Bill Shannon phoned two of the defendants, Julie Anne Smith and Kathy Stephens. How did these conversations fit into GCC staff offering to provide some form of “mediation”? What were the specifics of that?
- Phil Johnson (who serves at GCC as an Elder) was given a guest post on The Wartburg Watch, in which he stated GCC’s theological position against civil lawsuits as their response. But while generally distancing GCC from Mr. O’Neal and the lawsuit, Mr. Johnson failed/refused to respond to specific questions about staff involvement with “counseling” to file the suit. Also, no official response was posted on any GCC website, and why was that?
- A GCC employee, Fred Butler (who coordinates and directs volunteer ministries for GCC’s media program, “Grace To You”), engaged in some particularly aggressive blog post/comment exchanges with Ms. Smith and other spiritual abuse survivors. This included his posting of false information about defendant Hannah Smith, for which he later posted an apology. Some commenters wondered why he was not fired for this severe lapse of judgment.
This is not the place to attempt to resolve exactly what happened, but at least give some leads on how to reconstruct how Grace Community Church was/wasn’t involved. This dispute became important to the spiritual abuse survivors’ community because of how it interweaves problems with authoritarianism in leadership, the contempt that is often expressed toward spiritual abuse survivors in fundamentalist systems, and the often mischaracterization of all abuse survivors as merely being “disgruntled congregants” instead of victims of “malignant ministers.”
Reconstructing What Happened – February and March 2012
According to some of Julie Anne Smith’s recollections of events, Mr. O’Neal requested to meet with pastors at Grace Community Church when he would be attending their annual “Shepherds Conference” in March. GCC staff were apparently not aware of the lawsuit being filed until he told them about it while they were setting up the meeting. (However, as it came out later, apparently Mr. O’Neal had contacted someone on staff at GCC earlier on, and that conversation was where he reputedly was given the recommendation to file the lawsuit.)
Bill Shannon (who serves at GCC as Pastor, Discipleship Counseling, and Staff Elder) then phoned Julie Anne Smith and Kathy Stephens – both of them defendants in the lawsuit. Mr. Shannon asked questions about their perspectives on the situation with Beaverton Grace Bible Church and Mr. O’Neal. He specifically asked Ms. Smith what it would take for her to take down her “BGBC Survivors” blog. She verbally stated some conditions (without speaking to other defendants). The next day, she consulted with Ms. Stephens and others to get their input. From this, she wrote her conditions and sent them to Mr. Shannon. She also asked him to “mediate,” if Mr. O’Neal was willing, since in her view, Grace Community Church was one of the very few churches or ministries Mr. O’Neal admired and whose input he seemed willing to respect. Mr. Shannon presented the conditions to Mr. O’Neal and Dale Weaver, one of the BGBC elders. They were not interested in her conditions, in mediation, or in withdrawing the lawsuit.
Initially, it seemed to Ms. Smith that that was that. Over and done. This was not to be the case, however. Lawsuit-related issues would continue to come up where Grace Community Church had some tangential interest and so, got caught up in online controversies – all the way from February 2012 through the end of the year.
For reconstructing this early period of GCC engagement, we learn more of the overall time framework and details from Ms. Smith’s post of May 15, 2012, “Anticipation,” copied here in full:
There are a number of Christian bloggers keeping up with our story. Yesterday, two popular bloggers posted articles about our situation and I wanted to give more information so you can see how things fit together.
I’ll give a little background. This is the original Google review that was posted February 25, 2012. It has since been revised one or more times and I’ve had several readers tell me Chuck took it down entirely very recently after the media got the story.
Admin note: If you click on the links below, you will see that the reviews have since been edited (in fact, multiple times). Below is what was on the Google review site as of the date of this original posting.
Chuck O’Neal – Feb 25, 2012
DEFAMATION IS A CRIME: Pastor Chuck O’ Neal, his wife, his children, and Beaverton Grace Bible Church as a whole, have suffered JulieAnne’s hateful lying slander for well over three years. After seeking counsel from a pastor on staff with Grace Community Church (under Pastor John MacArthur) and reading him several excerpts from JulieAnne’s endless defamation, he recommended that we FILE A LAWSUIT in an appeal to Caesar as the Apostle Paul did when falsely accused of crimes against God and the state. The lawsuit has been filed in the Washington County courthouse. JulieAnne and many of those involved in her present and historic slander will be served within the week. Her many lies and vicious criminal accusations will not stand in the light of day in the Washington County courthouse or in the coming courtroom before God. OVER THREE YEARS AGO the reviewer known as JulieAnne or “BROWN” was Biblically put out of Beaverton Grace Bible Church for ongoing vicious slander. You can see my 2009 response to her in the reviews below.
This “review” (it’s not really a review of Beaverton Grace Church, it’s a review of me, but strangely, I don’t see “Julie Anne Smith” at the top of the Google site, but Beaverton Grace Bible Church).
Side note: Can someone do me a favor and look up the rules on Google reviews and see if it is okay for a “business owner” to review the reviewer? Also, can someone explain to me how my reviews were mysteriously removed? I contacted Google to have one of Chuck’s reviews removed (one where he is removing me) and they wouldn’t do it. They said they would need me to send them official court documentation before they would do it. Well, nothing has gone to court yet, but many reviews of mine were removed. How did they get removed? Weird. Sorry – that is just one thing that has bothered me for a while. Anyway . .
Back to the story . . . . . after I saw that review stating we would be served, I made a phone call to Grace Community Church on February 27. We played phone tag and I believe we finally connected on February 29. I spoke with a “pastor of the day”. I explained to him my story about the threatened lawsuit, the difficulties and challenges our family had with the church and wanted to know if he had any way of determining if in fact Chuck O’Neal had indeed been told by pastor(s) of Grace Community Church (John MacArthur’s church) to sue me.
I don’t have time to dig them up right now, but there are blog posts (on my blog) and/or comments discussing Grace Community Church’s involvement in this. A number of readers have quoted John MacArthur from his sermons/books/teachings where he discusses that Christians are not to sue other Christians. In all of MacArthur’s teachings that I saw, there was no exception for a Christian to sue another Christian, so that is why the interest in knowing if in fact a pastor from GCC recommended that Chuck O’Neal sue us.
The pastor told me, that as far as he could tell based on their record-keeping system, there was no record of Chuck calling any pastor regarding the lawsuit. I made sure he spelled it correctly “O’Neal”, not “O’Neil”, and he again confirmed it. He did say that if Chuck had a personal phone number of a pastor, then it was possible that he did hear from another pastor. I was a bit surprised that this pastor didn’t volunteer something like: “Based on scripture, Christians should not be suing one another, so I highly doubt one of our pastor encouraged your pastor to sue you. ” John MacArthur does not mince words on this subject, so why wouldn’t his pastors? But that did not happen.
Six days later, on March 1, 2012, my husband received the subpoena. Whoa! It’s pretty weird to see the names in all caps: CHUCK O’NEAL/BEAVERTON GRACE BIBLE CHURCH vs JULIE ANNE SMITH (etc) on an official court document.
The following week, I received a phone call and the Caller ID said “Grace Community”. I thought that was odd – perhaps a follow-up call from the previous pastor to see how I was doing? No, it was a pastor from Grace Community, Bill Shannon. I had no idea who this pastor was, but he said that he wanted to hear my side of the story regarding the lawsuit. He told me that Chuck had requested counsel. Chuck O’Neal and other men from church were in S. California to attend the annual Shepherds’ Conference put on by Grace Community. Bill asked me background questions and said they were planning on meeting with Chuck O’Neal later in the week. At the very end of the conversation he asked what it would take for me to remove my posts off the internet. I gave him conditions.
Later on in the week, they did meet. I had sent an additional e-mail of conditions we would like if Chuck agreed to drop the lawsuit. Chuck did not agree and so I received a follow-up e-mail from Bill that Grace Community could no longer help.
What I failed to do was ask Bill if he could confirm or deny that any pastor encouraged Chuck to sue us.
This is where things take off regarding Grace Community. Of course I personally wanted to know GCC’s stand on this issue, evidently FBX Jax did as well and made it part of the focus of his post.
After I saw FBX Jax’ blog post on Mother’s Day (Mother and Daughter Being Sued by Their Former Pastor – Pastor Claims He Was Told to Sue by John MacArthur’s Church), I remembered I had a draft copy of an e-mail I was going to send to Bill Shannon asking him to let me know whether or not he or any pastor at GCC had recommended to Chuck that he sue us. This had been a matter of discussion on my blog recently, so I finally sent that e-mail to Bill yesterday (May 14) afternoon.
A few hours later, I noticed that Dee of Wartburg Watch Blog also took off on that same topic.
There were a couple things I wanted to talk about regarding the post, so I called Dee. I was surprised to learn that she, too, had contacted Grace Community on the same day – only a few hours earlier, asking about the same info. That was a strange coincidence.
Late night, I saw a reader comment from Phil Johnson:
Phil Johnson on Mon, May 14 2012 at 09:53 pm
I just learned about this story for the first time at noon today. I couldn’t locate your e-mail address, bit if you’ll e-mail me, I’ll send you an official statement from Grace Church and John MacArthur that you can publish. If you want to talk further by phone, I’ll tell you what I learned about this situation this afternoon. I’ll give you my cell # by e-mail.
So I left this comment on Phil’s blog since I couldn’t find a place to e-mail him:
Julie Anne said…
Sorry, Phil, I see no other way of contacting you. Can you please have someone contact me regarding the situation with Beaverton Grace Bible Church lawsuit against 5 former members? I’m one of the defendants named in the lawsuit and most likely the primary reason Chuck O’Neal had a meeting with Bill and another pastor. I would like to have this information since it pertains more to me and friends (former church member) than anyone else.
Bill Shannon has my e-mail and phone number. Or else you may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
8:40 PM, May 14, 2012
- Feb 25 – Chuck posts review saying he is suing us
- Feb 29 – talked with pastor of the day from GCC
- Mar 1 – Received subpoena
- Mar 5 or 6 – Bill Shannon phoned me to ask questions
- Mar 9 – Bill Shannon told me he can no longer help in our situation after meeting with Chuck
Did they or did they not encourage Chuck to sue us? That is the question!
So, now we wait for Dee and Phil Johnson to connect so she can post the official statement from John MacArthur on this situation. Would someone please send me a dose of patience?
Online Media Responses – May and June 2012
Various spiritual abuse survivor bloggers sought to figure out the connections between Mr. O’Neal and his claims about GCC, as well as apparent lack of forthcoming in the posts and comments by some of the GCC representatives. Besides The Wartburg Watch, the blogs FBC Jax Watchdog and Purpose Drivel joined into this online “crowd-sourced” investigation, along with their readers. Here are the key posts that I have found where the question of a GCC connection serves as the main topic. These are worth reading in full – including the comments, which often number over 100. There are important bits and pieces of perspective among them.
May 13, 2012 – FBC Jax Watchdogs posts, “Mother and Daughter Being Sued by Their Former Pastor – Pastor Claims He Was Told to Sue by John MacArthur’s Church” (electronic time stamp shows 6:02 AM). This appears to be the first blog outside of BGBC Survivors post of February 25 to highlight the connection between Pastor O’Neal’s defamation lawsuit and the alleged recommendation by Grace Community Church.
May 14, 2012 – The Wartburg Watch posts, “Pastor Makes International News by Suing Blogging Critic-Is John MacArthur’s Church Involved?” This appears to be the second blog, after the May 13 post by FBC Jax Watchdogs, to focus on the alleged recommendation by Grace Community Church to Charles O’Neal to file the lawsuit. Later this day, Phil Johnson, an elder at GCC, comments on this post at 9:53 PM: “I just learned about this story for the first time at noon today. I couldn’t locate your e-mail address, bit (sic) if you’ll e-mail me, I’ll send you an official statement from Grace Church and John MacArthur that you can publish. If you want to talk further by phone, I’ll tell you what I learned about this situation this afternoon. I’ll give you my cell # by e-mail.” [It is unknown at this point how Mr. Johnson heard of Julie Anne’s situation, whether from her email letter to Pastor Shannon earlier that day, or perhaps from action on the internet.]
May 15, 2012 – The Wartburg Watch posts “Phil Johnson Responds for John MacArthur and Grace Community Church.” Things got even more complex and contentious when Phil Johnson, an elder at GCC, eventually responded with an “open letter” to some of the questions that arose along this line. It was posted the afternoon of the 15th, Eastern Standard Time, on The Wartburg Watch – a blog well known within the spiritual abuse survivors’ community. His letter primarily states the GCC doctrinal standards on relevant questions about civil authority and lawsuits. It neither confirms nor denies that anyone on staff at GCC recommended to Charles O’Neal that he should or would be free to file a lawsuit.
This appears to be the only official statement or explanation from GCC on the subject. Mr. Johnson did not, however, respond publicly there (or elsewhere, to my knowledge) to the direct questions in blog articles or comments that had been posed to him about any GCC staff involvement with Mr. O’Neal and his eventual decision to file the defamation lawsuit. As of the end of 2012, no other known official statements or explanations have been posted by GCC directly, or on their behalf.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Johnson and his open letter found a mixed reception at The Wartburg Watch, as a number of commenters indicated their dissatisfaction with his/GCC’s official response. Meanwhile, other bloggers took on what they interpreted as an over-guarded response. They eventually posted questions, such as wondering why GCC posted an official response on TWW and not on any of their own official blogs, why this was done by Phil Johnson on behalf of GCC, and whether GCC’s treatment of Julie Anne Smith in their communications was forthcoming enough.
May 15, 2012 – Purpose Drivel posts, “Phil Johnson Responds for John MacArthur and Grace Community Church regarding Chuck O’Neal and Beaverton ‘Grace’ Bible Church” (electronic time stamp shows 11:04 AM). While this post mostly quotes from The Wartburg Watch posts of May 14 and 15, it brings in Julie Anne Smith’s chronology of events from her BGBC Survivors’ “Anticipation” post. The Purpose Drivel author states that Ms. Smith’s chronology is interesting, in light of Phil Johnson’s response. This appears to be the first blog to ask a key question explicitly about GCC and Bill Shannon’s role in events: “Will [GCC Pastor] Bill Shannon publicly recant for overstepping his authority and dragging their church into this mess?”
May 16, 2012 – Phil Johnson posts on Facebook and Twitter. Since the whole situation broached many theological topics, Phil happened to post a Facebook thread with a link to an article on lawsuits and church discipline. He also responded on the thread to comments of others and said on May 16, 9:24 pm:
Phil Johnson Those are some good observations and great questions. If time permits, I’ll deal with this issue in a blogpost next week.
Bottom line: I don’t approve of abusive styles of leadership OR online nests of disgruntled, emotion-laden but biblically hollow chronic complaint.
To sue a fellow Christian and to post backbiting complaints in public venues both violate the principle of 1 Cor. 6:1-8, it seems to me. However, church leaders who violate that principle will incur stricter judgment (James 3:1).
Abusive and heavy-handed, high-control church leadership is a serious problem among some very conservative churches, and those of us who are conservative should speak out against it. If there were fewer control freaks in church leadership, I think there would also be fewer out-of-control complaint blogs.
The aforementioned blog post he planned to do apparently never got done. However, he did raise questions for some spiritual abuse survivors with his choice of phrases, “online nests of disgruntled, emotion-laden but biblically hollow chronic complaint” and “out-of-control complaint blogs.” Did these include The Wartburg Watch, for instance, where he had requested posting a response on behalf of Grace Community Church/John MacArthur – but then apparently did not post the response on any GCC-related website that I’ve been able to find? Was he just using TWW and other survivor forums for his own purposes? Was he really trustworthy?
This is thing that we must understand happens with online media: If there are apparent inconsistencies between what you post in one type of media, like blogs, versus on other social media, like Facebook and Twitter, the gap between them may very well get noticed. And then what will you do about it? In this case, there was no follow-up or resolution after this Facebook thread, at least none that I’m aware of.
May 16, 2012 – The Wartburg Watch posts “Pastor Chuck O’Neal, The Blogger, Phil Johnson and Overuse of ‘Slander’.” This particular post by Dee – one of the two research writers at TWW/The Wartburg Watch – shares a section of an email exchange with Phil Johnson, with his permission. This gives us perhaps as much detail as we’re going to find from a GCC insider on the overall subject of Grace Community Church’s connection with the O’Neal and BGBC lawsuit. It doesn’t answer everything, but it does answer some things. I am copying below the most relevant section, in its entirety.
May 16, 2012, Excerpt from Post on The Wartburg Watch
Phil Johnson, John MacArthur and Grace Community Church
Phil and I had a series of respectful emails regarding GCC’s involvement in this now international story. I want to stress something. Phil was courteous and open with me. I even tweeked him by referring to myself as a “discernment diva.”(I couldn’t resist ☺) He didn’t bite and continued to address the situation at hand. Frankly, I was surprised by the open nature of our communication. I know that he and I will not see eye to eye on a number of theological issues but, in this instance, at least, I believe that he tried to explain a difficult situation with kindness and without pulling any punches.
I asked permission to post the emails and he gave me permission to print the following. He said that if I wished to print more, to let him know and he felt that he would approve any request on my part. However, I think the excerpt is enough.
“Chuck O’Neal did phone me this morning and we talked for more than an hour. . . .
Here’s my summary of Pastor O’Neal’s side of the story: He says he was accused of many things over several years’ time—including child molestation and other gross crimes. At one point the police actually came to his door and questioned him about the abuse charges. They launched an investigation that included state-ordered medical examinations of his children. He was cleared of all those accusations by this investigation, but his wife was terrorized by it, so he began to seek advice from other pastors on how to respond. That prompted his call to Grace Community Church, in which he was put in touch with the only responsible staff member who was available at that moment to take a random call. That staff member is not an elder but is a generally knowledgeable and trustworthy counselor. (I’m not going to name him, but he is a tenderhearted shepherd . . .).
Pastor O’Neal says he doesn’t remember the exact language the counselor used, but he says one of the suggestions the counselor made was that he should see a lawyer to explore his legal options. He took that as tacit approval that a lawsuit might not be out of the question. That started the process.
Around March of this year [one of our elders] learned of the situation somehow and encouraged both Pastor O’Neal and his accusers to resolve the matter without going to court. My understanding is that [the elder] spoke to all parties and concluded that both sides needed to yield somewhat. He encouraged Pastor O’Neal to withdraw the lawsuit and his accusers to withdraw some of the material they had posted online. [The elder] says neither side budged but simply dug in with even more firmly adversarial positions.
Pastor O’Neal acknowledges that it was clear to him after talking with [the elder] that our elders were basically opposed to the lawsuit (especially the request for monetary damages), but by then his own study of 1 Corinthians 6 had convinced him that there are “loopholes” permitting Christians to file lawsuits in certain extreme situations. He was convinced his situation is one of those exceptional cases. He seems to have correctly understood that [the elder from Grace] did not share his perspective on that, but he says he thought [our elders weren’t] taking a hard-line stance—as if [we] regarded his opinion as a matter of preference rather than a biblical position.
Anyway, Pastor O’Neal did not have Grace Church’s encouragement to sue and he understood that.
Could Grace Church have given better, clearer counsel in this case? In my opinion, yes. The initial counsel given was almost certainly too ambiguous and not emphatic enough. (The fact that even Pastor O’Neal doesn’t recall precisely what the counselor said is sufficient proof of that).
I reaffirmed our official position with Pastor O’Neal this morning: We believe the course of action he has chosen is wrong and that he should drop the lawsuit, even if every claim his accusers make is false and everything he says they have done to him is true.”
Last night, before a meeting, I sent Phil the following email.
“There have been a number of comments, both on our blog and others, that state that Grace has not expressed concern for the blogger involved. There is a perception that the major concern is for the pastor and that his concerns and statements take precedence over the woman involved. Frankly, that has been my perception as well. Do not forget, this was one of those situations in which a church wide shunning was involved.
I believe it would go a long way for the church to express God’s love and concern for BOTH parties to this lawsuit. If not, as the media continues to escalate this, it could come across that Grace is part of a good old boy network and that the pastor is king and that a church member is expendable.”
Surprisingly, Phil beat me to the punch. As I was sending that email, he was involved in a lengthy telephone conversation with Julie Anne. She found that he was sympathetic and concerned about her side of the story. For that, I am grateful. Julie Anne is under a lot of pressure and I am appreciative that he was able to allay some of her concerns.
Final Thoughts and Lessons to Learn
On the surface, it seemed like things settled down after the controversy over Grace Community Church’s degree of connection with the BGBC defamation lawsuit had been aired about as much as it could be. There was finally enough detail to suggest that someone on staff had indeed said something to Mr. O’Neal, but that it had been taken too far by him, and that GCC’s official stance was and would remain as being against lawsuits as anti-biblical.
Think about it from another angle, though: Ms. Smith and others had been waiting since Mr. O’Neal’s Google Review of February 25 to find out this answer to their questions. It had taken Grace Community Church 10 weeks for a sufficient reply to be forthcoming. But – was 10 weeks a reasonable wait, given the seriousness and stress involved for the defendants, and the untold hours of behind-the-scenes phone call and email exchanges by at least Dee from The Wartburg Watch, Ms. Smith, and Ms. Stephens? Personally, I don’t think it was appropriate. The questions were known by early March. Why did it need to take so long?
The longer GCC official left important things unsaid, the more room they themselves gave for more questions and more speculation:
- Why are they being evasive?
- Is it because we’re “just” women?
- Why do I feel like the bad guy when they contact me?
- Do they believe anyone who challenges authority is just a “chronic complainer” who doesn’t deserve the basic respect of being taken seriously?
- Is this how they deal with anyone and everyone when there is a situation of conflict?
I think the way this was handled by GCC offers another “online integrity indicator lesson” for churches, ministries, and individuals who want to have an internet presence: If there are substantive questions about your ministry, and your responses are slow, inadequate, or seem to hedge on the full truth, you can expect push-back. In fact, you should expect push-back. It may or may not arrive right away, and it may or may not be in the way you think it will be or should be. But, it likely will come nonetheless. Also, these days, we cannot guarantee that anything we put on the internet can ever truly be “scrubbed.” All it takes is one quick screenshot, a subscriber’s cache, or the Wayback Machine archive and our digital actions may be forever caught in the act. Are we being circumspect enough – but not passive? Are we guarding our words well – but not thinking we can avoid all risk?
So, it looked like the dust was settling. But then, Mr. Johnson’s Facebook comments about “online nests of disgruntled, emotion-laden but biblically hollow chronic complaint” and “out-of-control complaint blogs” seemed to be portents of ill winds to come. Those blustery days arrived six weeks later, in the wake of the announcement that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit had been dismissed. This time, the key figures were not Mr. Shannon or Mr. Johnson, but another GCC employee, Fred Butler.
* * * * * * *
Controversy with Fred Butler – May – August 2012
Introducing the Issues
A significant amount of this involved Fred Butler, a GCC employee who coordinates and directs volunteer ministries with their “Grace To You” media programs. In late July and early August of 2012 especially, there were escalating exchanges on these topics. The volley of posts and comments began late in May, and lasted for about 10 weeks until early August. Posts and comments appeared on both Ms. Smith’s BGBC Survivors blog and Mr. Butler’s Hip and Thigh blog, with other community members commenting. Part of what made this so volatile was that Mr. Butler revealed he had been in direct contact with plaintiff Charles O’Neal. Also, Mr. Butler’s comments (and those of others on his blog) seemed to hint that he was receiving supposed inside information about BGBC and the Smiths. All of this escalation eventually halted after Mr. Butler posted false information (i.e., gossip) from a second-hand source about Ms. Smith’s oldest daughter Hannah, who was also a defendant in the case.
After being confronted both online and behind the scenes, especially by Julie Anne’s husband, Steve, Mr. Butler retracted his comments, and apologized to the Smiths. On August 3, he also was publically appealed to and challenged on Ms. Smith’s blog by her husband to post a retraction and apology on his own Hip and Thigh blog, which he did on that same day. Mr. Butler’s Mr. Butler’s official retraction/apology post has since been removed from his blog. Because of its significance to the post-lawsuit history, the following screenshot is included later in this section. (
Given the very public nature and severity of this offense, some members of the spiritual abuse survivors community wondered why Mr. Butler was not fired by GCC, despite his sincere contrition and public apologies.
Online Media Responses – May through August 2012
The following series of posts tracks much of the escalating tension on the legitimacy of spiritual abuse survivors, their blogs, and the issues so many survivors write about. Read all of the comments, too, for a sense of how fast the fracas developed. To give a framework that may help consider the additional stress of lawsuit issues, I have inserted key court into the list, noted in red.
* May 21, 2012 – First court date.
May 22, 2012 – Hip and Thigh posts “Sheep Attacks: A Rant Against Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs.”
June 14, 2012 – Hip and Thigh posts “Wicked Sheep.”
June 20, 2012 – BGBC Survivors posts “How Far Will We Go to Contend for the Faith?”
June 26, 2012 – Hip and Thigh posts “Responding to the Wolf Watchers.”
* July 13, 2012 – Second and final court date.
* July 23, 2012 – Judge Fun issues his decision dismissing the plaintiffs’ lawsuit.
July 25, 2012 – Hip and Thigh posts “Canis Lupus Pastoral: Identifying the Wolf Pastor.”
* July 26, 2012 – News of the defendants’ victory is posted online.
July 31, 2012 – BGBC Survivors posts “More Monkey Business and New Review by Former Member.”
August 2, 2012 – BGBC Survivors posts “The World is Watching Us.”
August 3, 2012 – Hip and Thigh posts “A Statement to the Smith Family.” (This apology post has since been removed. A screenshot is posted below. Click on the image for a larger, more legible version.)
August 6, 2012 – BGBC Survivors posts “Response to Apology – Trolls and Spiritual Abuse.” (The text of this post appears below.)
August 6, 2012 – Paul’s Passing Thoughts posts “The Philosopher King Wars.” QUOTE: “The sheep are catching on. They are pushing back against being owned by anyone other the Lord who purchased us with His own Blood.”
Final Thoughts and Lessons to Learn
Also significant to this entire interchange was a question raised by Mr. Smith to Mr. Butler on August 6: “How much oversight do you give GCC peers or pastors over what you write publicly? I realize you may never answer that question, but for sensitive issues like this it is human to write something hurtful in the heat of passion over strong beliefs. It is easy to take a favorite side without investigating the facts. With GCC being such a trend-setting church worldwide I’m sure the broadcast image of all the elders is very important.” Copied below is the entire August 6 post that question came from,”Response to Apology – Trolls and Spiritual Abuse.”
This gives us another “integrity indicator lesson.” This one goes to the core of the ironic situation where people in roles of ministry authority believe they should not be criticized, either by those underneath or outside their authority, and yet they seem to freely criticize others outside their authority. And those in authority may thus act as if they exist outside accountability.
Mr. Butler’s Apology Post on “Hip and Thigh,” August 3, 2012
Ms. Smith’s Response to Apology – Trolls and Spiritual Abuse, August 6, 2012
Last week, Fred Butler issued a public apology to the Smith Family on his own blog per my husband’s request. Comments on the post were closed, so I have copied Steve’s words here (and sent Fred an e-mail):
Concerning what you wrote about Hannah – your apology is accepted and I forgive you. Thank you for taking my request to heart. Bear in mind I’m only speaking for myself, not JA or Hannah.
One further question: How much oversight do you give GCC peers or pastors over what you write publicly? I realize you may never answer that question, but for sensitive issues like this it is human to write something hurtful in the heat of passion over strong beliefs. It is easy to take a favorite side without investigating the facts. With GCC being such a trend-setting church worldwide I’m sure the broadcast image of all the elders is very important.
I, too, have forgiven Fred for last week’s inappropriate comments regarding my daughter and repercussions on our family and have sent Fred a personal e-mail. Hannah accepted Fred’s apology earlier.
|Thanks to reader Tom Kelley for submitting this 🙂|
Trolls and Spiritual Abuse
I lost track of how many posts were deleted these past few days. These are not the typical trolls that cause disruption on blogs, These trolls are posting very hurtful comments directed towards my daughter and Emily and her friend, who were also former members. Other comments were disruptive, just to stir up trouble and waste my time.
I’ve been saying from the beginning that the lawsuit was about spiritual abuse; a pastor is trying to exert his control over those who have left to prevent them from talking. The lawsuit was an attempt to shut down this blog. The pastor and some of his people will do anything to sabotage this blog, including trying to bring sympathetic outsiders into their fight against us by spreading gossip, and using them to continue this battle as was evidenced last week. (Fred mentioned in his blog comments: “Your old pastor emailed me when I put up my second post on wicked sheep to tell me how much he appreciates my being discerning with my post and comments interacting with other “survivor bloggers” and to explain his side of the story. “)
What’s interesting is that in their quest to cause disruption here, they are blatantly sinning (calling young girls disgusting names) and bullying and showing no Christ-like behavior. Would God call people to sin in order to fight His battles? I don’t think so. People who are so blinded that they behave in such a fashion are also ones who could be easily deceived and convinced to drink the tainted kool-aid because they have lost common sense of what is right and what is wrong. Please pray for these folks as they are in a dangerous place.
In light of the above, I am going to toughen up the posting rules a bit. I will periodically switch from moderated to unmoderated comments, as necessary. I am much more inclined to delete Anonymous posts, so please refrain from posting using “Anonymous” as a name. Instead, either use your real name (first name is fine), or select a pseudonym and stick with the pseudonym. Thank you for your understanding.
Let’s move on . . . .
Moving On …
It seemed like things calmed down after all of that, at least on that front and affront. But Mr. Butler unexpectedly resurfaced in the aftermath of the lawsuit’s dismissal …
… he was one of the very first to Tweet about the launching of Mr. O’Neal’s pseudo-BGBCSurvivors blog in December 2012 …
* * * * * * *
Activities of Mr. O’Neal and BGBC Members
~ After the Lawsuit is Over ~
Introducing the Issues
As I have noted elsewhere in this Archive, one wonders if anything would actually have satisfied Mr. O’Neal in his craving and quest for “protecting and defending” his family and his church. Wherever that urge and urgency comes from, it seems to have driven him to great lengths to refute the alleged lies of his nemeses – Julie Anne Smith and Meaghan Varela – with everything he can. In addition to his church-related duties, he spent time with press releases and documents and other tasks related to preparing for the lawsuit. He was already required to pay over $60,000 in the defendants’ court costs and attorneys’ fees, along with his own courts costs and fees for the services of at least three lawyers. But what could have been next – once the lawsuit had been dismissed?
It turns out that he is continuing the battle that he believes he has been called to engage in. His ongoing campaign deeply involves his family and his church in further activities. Some of these have been relatively predictable, while others have been quite unexpected.
This section addresses actions by Mr. O’Neal and BGBC members which emerged after the lawsuit was over, even if their origins go back to the beginning of the lawsuit or even farther back. It is followed by another section where I share some of my conclusions about Mr. O’Neal’s responses to his failed lawsuit.
Activation of the “BGBC Alternative/Impostor Blog” – April – December 2012
On December 2, 2012, Mr. O’Neal activated a blog with a similar domain name to the one created by Ms. Smith in February 2012. It started being announced on December 10 (as by Fred Butler of Grace Community Church) and comments started appearing on December 11. (No “negative” comments were allowed to be posted at the beginning, despite a number of survivor bloggers attempting to do so.)
The odd thing is, this particular domain (BGBCSurvivors dot org), and similar dot com and dot net domains, were purchased and registered by Beaverton Grace Bible Church between April 17-19, 2012, with Chuck O’Neal as Administrative Contact. (See the documentation from “Whois” at the end of this section.) These purchases occurred just two months AFTER Mr. O’Neal and BGBC filed the lawsuit against Ms. Smith, et al, and seven and a half months BEFORE his first blog postings. Thus, the website does not seem a spontaneous project. What were the purposes and plans behind this?
The stated purpose of Mr. O’Neal’s blog was to protect and defend his family and his church, particularly against the alleged ongoing lies of two of defendants whose lawsuit prevailed, Meaghan Varela and Ms. Smith. Or, as he put it specifically:
The PURPOSE of this website and the videos on it is to protect Beaverton Grace Bible Church and our families from ongoing slander and criminal accusations of the worst kind. Meaghan Varela has lied to her family, friends, pastors, the police, the Department of Human Services (Child Protection), the court, and the world. Julie Anne Smith has joined her in her lies and heralded them forth to the world on her blog (BGBC Survivors) dedicated to the destruction of our church and families. Exodus 20:16 says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Meaghan Varela and Julie Anne Smith have given “false witness” against our church and families for four years. The statements and videos on this website tell our story of suffering and surviving their assault. We are the TRUE BGBC SURVIVORS.
However, questions immediately arose about Mr. O’Neal’s adaptation of the main name that Ms. Smith created, “BGBCSurvivors,” and about the intent, content, and attitude of the posts on what came to be known in the spiritual abuse survivors community as “the BGBC Impostor Blog.”
This sound-alike site to the blog created and owned by Ms. Smith has emerged as another key media issue. And there are a lot of questions to answer:
- Was the obvious tie-in with Ms. Smith’s blog name predesigned for the purposes of “phishing” and online manipulation through search engine optimization techniques?
- Using a “spin-off” name could supposedly get “the truth out” – but is it legitimate thus to “lure” people in who hadn’t considered the O’Neals’ side of the story? (As of January 11, 2013, if someone conducts a Google search of “BGBC Survivors,” the impostor blog now shows up on the first three results pages more than the original does.)
- Was it to block Ms. Smith from using the BGBCSurvivors dot com, dot net, and dot org domain names, and/or was it to punish her?
- Does this actually represent a contentious spirit and contempt – going under the guise of “protecting” the O’Neals and BGBC?
Online Media Responses
Dec 12, 2012 – BGBC Survivors (Julie Anne Smith’s BlogSpot/Blogger site) posts, “Impostor “True” BGBC Survivors Blog Site Created by Suing Pastor Chuck O’Neal.”
Dec 13, 2012 – The Wartburg Watch posts, “Chuck O’Neal’s Church Launches ‘True BGBC Survivors’ Website.” The Wartburg Watch, whose founders specialize in research on church and cultural trends, and spiritual abuse topics, post an article about Mr. O’Neal’s impostor BGBC blog. There is surprising interaction as Mr. and Mrs. O’Neal and at least one church member who does not remain anonymous all post comments, some in response to rather pointed/blunt comments by others in the spiritual abuse survivors’ online community. The comments by BGBC bloggers seem very instructive in identifying their intentions, content, and attitudes.
Dec 18, 2012 – Todd Rhoades posts, “Pastor starts website to attack church’s attackers.” Mr. O’Neal also engages in interchanges on this blog post. See Archive page 05 Analysis/Commentary Pieces for the compilation of a three-part series of comments I wrote about what church leaders could learn from this lawsuit in terms of moving from crisis intervention toward prevention, and what kind of role model this case study offers.
Dec 19, 2012 – Apprising Ministries posts, “TODD RHOADES ON PASTOR CHUCK O’NEAL’S WEBSITE ATTACKING “CHURCH ATTACKERS.” Ken Silva of Apprising Ministries reports on the post by Todd Rhoades that notifies his readers of the existence of Mr. O’Neal’s “survivors” blog.
Analysis: December 2012 – A Month of Intensive and Contentious Blogging
For a more in-depth analysis of the blog’s content, see Archive page 05 Analysis/Commentary Pieces. The first article there is Analyzing the “Alternative/Impostor” Survivors Site of the O’Neals and Beaverton Grace Bible Church. To produce this article, I spent two full days going through all 29 posts with 19 videos (totaling about 2 hours 15 minutes), numerous comments, and several documents. I focused on the how the material on this blog connects with the allegations in the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, as an overview, I had three main impressions from the blog comments of Mr. O’Neal and BGBC members in their attempts to inform the survivor community about their blog, and about their view of “the truth” concerning Julie Anne Smith and Meaghan Varela:
- The dialogue started out as seemingly civil and relatively calm, but it did not take long until the tone turned more contentious. There was a lot of poking and prodding with legitimate questions about the supposed documentation and evidence, and, yes, a fair amount of snark on the part of survivors. There was also what seemed to me an increasingly shrill edge to comments from the O’Neals and other BGBC loyalists.
- Mr. O’Neal in particular seemed to “jump shift” on clear and direct questions that were asked of him. He did not respond to them, but, like a politician in a debate or news interview, seemed to shift it around to answer a question he would have preferred to have been asked.
- The comments seem to me to indicate a lack of being able to distinguish fact from opinion/conclusion, or justice and vindication from judgment and vindictiveness.
There were many things I found to be problematic when I reviewed the “accusations” and “evidence” on the O’Neals’ pseudo-BGBC Survivors blog, and Mr. O’Neal’s sermonaudio blog.
- The terms criminal and civil are used in a way that does not make sense to me. If anyone committed a CRIME, wouldn’t it have been appropriate to report it to the police or other authorities, not merely take someone to a civil court process?
- The documents they show in full do not seem to support their case in the ways they state as fact. (I have put an example of the former on Archive page 05 Analysis/Commentary Pieces – Legal, Historical, Other, with an article on “Analysis of an Undated Letter from the O’Neal’s Attorney Regarding DHS Investigation in 2008.”)
- The documents they refuse to show in full despite repeated requests that they do so, do not seem to support their case in the ways they claim. This applies particularly to the snippets of a DHS report they display.
- Also, would it actually be admissible evidence in court to submit a video recording of someone reading some document that is supposedly irrefutable evidence? How do we know if it’s been read completely and correctly unless we have a photocopy of the original and not just a reading or a typed version of it?
All together, these new postings of information through blog articles and comments resonated with the analysis of Ms. Williams, lawyer for the three final defendants, and what she stated late in the case when submitting her rationale for attorneys’ hours and fee rates. (I did not read this document until early January, after I had already been perusing the materials on the pseudo-BGBC website. Thus, I already had the above points in mind, which her analysis reinforced.)
In her “Motion and Memorandum in Support of Awards of Stated Costs, Disbursements and Attorney Fees Filed by Julie Anne Smith, Hannah Smith and Meaghan Varela” (filed August 20, 2012), she critiqued the plaintiffs’ approach to their own case and why it took the defense counsel so many hours of research in order to respond:
Plaintiffs submitted declarations in this case on May 15, 2012, which contained irrelevant and objectionable averments. The Smiths moved against many of those statements. Plaintiffs’ materials contained many lengthy narrative recitations of questionable relevance, conjecture and inadmissible hearsay. … Plaintiffs did not respond to the objections, and despite the objections, Plaintiffs resubmitted the original declarations in Response to Varela’s motions to dismiss and field yet another set of declarations on or about, July 2, 2012, containing similar objectionable allegations.
Plaintiffs’ Memorandum in Response to the Smiths’ motions and (later) their Response to Varela’s motions repeated large portions of these narratives. The time expended on objecting to inadmissible materials was necessary and warranted by the nature of the proffered material. […] (pages 15-16, emphasis added)
I suppose I could draw up an exhaustive list of questions, inconsistencies, and lack of logical analysis from the many articles, videos, and comments now available on the pseudo-BGBC Survivors site. But I have concluded it is time for me to move on. Compiling this Archive is the capstone to my spending 10 months following the BGBC defamation lawsuit. I truly do hope that the O’Neals and BGBC members can find their way to move on, too.
Analysis: January 2013 – Moving On and Yet Not …
As of this writing (January 11, 2013), it appears that the “impostor BGBC blog” now allows some “negative” comments to be posted. The O’Neals and other BGBC loyalists are responding there. I have not seen them commenting lately on spiritual abuse survivor blogs, however. Perhaps the O’Neals’ and BGBC members’ comments on other people’s blogs in December were just an experiment or an initial effort to publicize their own blog. Maybe from now the “action” will be mostly on their own home turf.
One thing that makes me especially sad is how it seems these alleged offenses can never be resolved. If we follow Mr. O’Neal’s logic in justifying his continuing to “present the truth” until Ms. Smith and Ms. Varela repent in full, then he and his family will never ever be free of what happened because no person can repent to perfection. See the screenshot below of a comment from January 11, 2013. The highlighted section states:
We would love to “get over this issue and move on with life.” It is our lives and church that they are trying to destroy with historic and ongoing criminal accusations. When they cease, desist, and confess what they have done… we will gladly “move on with life.” ~ Chuck O’Neal, January 10, 2013
The O’Neals may end up clinging to these allegations and offenses forever, thus allowing the past to control them in the present and in their future. Their refusal to move on unconditionally will keep them locked in to where the nightmare they say they’ve been living. That is sad for any sibling in the family of God …
Plaintiffs Promote Issues of DHS/Child Protective Services Investigation and “Sex Offender” In the Church – December 2012
Perhaps most curious of all, this pseudo-BGBC “Impostor Blog” focuses primarily on events that occurred in December 2008. At that time, someone reported one of the BGBC congregation families to DHS/Child Protective Services, and there were subsequent investigations of this family. Also, Mr. O’Neal himself was the subject of a DHS investigation, and thus, so was his family.
Two Versions of What/Who Instigated an Investigation
How this investigation of Mr. O’Neal happened is the subject of huge disagreement. There are two opposing versions:
(1) Meaghan Varela reported suspected child sexual abuse by an older sibling in a specific BGBC congregation family, and a couple of other indiscretions she saw – but she did not report or suggest Mr. O’Neal himself was a sexual offender. This has been her consistent contention, and her version appears in the sworn testimony of her court declaration as one of the defendants.
Taking Ms. Varela’s version as full and accurate, then the details she reported suggest that Mr. O’Neal knew of the situation(s) and yet failed to report it to the authorities. (The fact that Mr. O’Neal and BGBC elders knew at the very least of the specific instance of sibling sexual abuse stands recorded later in the sworn testimony of a court declaration filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by the mother in that family.) Mr. O’Neal’s knowledge of suspected sexual abuse and failure to report it to DHS could itself have instigated the DHS investigation of himself.
(2) Mr. O’Neal claims as fact that defendant Meaghan Varela herself reported Mr. O’Neal as a suspected sexual offender. Further, he claims that this was an act of vengeance in retaliation for Mr. O’Neal firing a friend of hers who worked on staff at BGBC.
Ms. Varela denies the allegations of both reporting and the supposed motive. Yet, these conclusions about action and motive have been the consistent contention of the O’Neals and other BGBC members on the pseudo-Survivors blog and elsewhere online.
Some Critical Questions About the O’Neal/BGBC Claims
In making their case on their website, Mr. and Mrs. O’Neal claim that Ms. Varela’s sworn testimony is false and that she did indeed directly report Mr. O’Neal – and so he was investigated as a suspected harborer of sex offenders and porn distributors, and as a sex offender himself. They claim verbally in videos and in writing via their “Attorney’s DHS Interview Letter” to have direct confirmation from a DHS worker of the reporter’s identity as “the same individual that made allegations against another family in the church.” Their conclusion is that this was Ms. Varela.
If I understand correctly from Oregon’s DHS website, any such statements by a DHS worker would be a violation of Oregon’s legal confidentiality requirements regarding child abuse reporters. However, the O’Neals also state in the Attorney’s Letter that the DHS “investigation was recorded in order to provide a legal record of what took place.” So that means their contention about the claim of the social worker’s revelation of the reporter’s identity could be verified. Yet, I don’t recall reading about that evidence being submitted to the court (although it was referred to indirectly in plaintiffs’ declarations and I believe was striken as either irrelevant or inadmissible hearsay evidence).
Their opinion (which has never been established as a fact) about Ms. Varela reporting Mr. O’Neal serves as the entire lynchpin of their “True BGBC Survivors” campaigns and the reason for their blog. It also appears indirectly in many of the court declarations filed on behalf of the lawsuit plaintiffs. Archive page 05 Analysis/Commentary Pieces addresses in detail this absolutely crucial conclusion and some of the very elaborate speculation and argumentation processes used for reaching it.
The plaintiffs claim in the out-of-court Attorney’s Letter that Mrs. O’Neal asked the DHS social worker “if it wasn’t a crime to purposely make a false report, and what legal action could be taken against the Varela’s” [sic] – implying they accuse both Tim and Meaghan Varela of malicious, false reporting. I find two clusters of issues immensely curious here.
- First, why did Mr. O’Neal not file whatever criminal or civil charges were available against Ms. Varela, given his belief in the airtight nature of his “evidence” about her alleged reporting of him to DHS? As presented on his blog, at least, he seems to believe his case is absolutely solid. So, why file a defamation lawsuit in which Ms. Varela was not even named a defendant originally, and was only added for allegedly defamatory blog comments in the Amended Complaint months later?
- Second, why do Mr. O’Neal’s blog videos and documents, and the plaintiff’s court documents, seem extremely careful about never stating the name of Varelas’ friend who was fired? To the observant reader/listener who is paying attention to what is NOT BEING written/said, it is noticeable! Is there something about that employment situation which would make the O’Neal/BGBC supposed case against the Varelas crumble?
The emphasis given to the DHS incident in December 2008 makes it seem like it was “the” bone of contention in the lawsuit. Yet, it occurred a full three years before the lawsuit began and was, in fact, not mentioned directly within the original Complaint filed by the plaintiffs in their defamation lawsuit, their Amended Complaint, or their response to the anti-SLAPP in their Opposition to Motions to Strike.
That three-fold fact itself is stunning. To repeat: There is no direct mention in the (1) original Complaint, (2) Amended Complaint, or (3) Opposition to Motions to Strike.
There is nothing in the lawsuit allegations about DHS and Mr. O’Neal, but the issue about one of the congregation families was implied in the allegations regarding a “known sex offender” being in the church. It is true that a minor son of two congregation members allegedly perpetrated sexual abuse on his younger siblings and a report was filed with DHS in December 2008. (He was tried and convicted of this in 2009. As mentioned above, one of his parents supplied a five-page declaration as part of the plaintiffs’ Opposition to Motions to Strike.) Also, the presence of this suspected or known perpetrator was the subject in five of the 17 alleged defamatory statements of defendant Julie Anne Smith – as was the apparent failure to report instances of known or suspected sexual abuse to civil authorities by Mr. O’Neal and other church leaders.
For additional critical analysis on problematic aspects of Mr. O’Neal’s claims about these DHS reports and investigations, see Archive page 05 Analysis/Commentary Pieces – Legal, Historical, Other. There is a section on “Analysis of an Undated Letter from the O’Neal’s Attorney Regarding DHS Investigation in 2008.”
What Purposes Does the “True” Survivors Blog Serve?
But the way the “Impostor Blog” so emphatically presents the DHS investigation, I have to wonder if it was thrown out in December 2012 on the blog as a “red herring” to distract people from the fact that the judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ lawsuit for failure to substantiate any of the claims of defamatory statements:
“The court finds that the defendant’s internet postings on plaintiff’s website and defendant Julie Ann [sic] Smith’s blog site, were made in a public forum and concern an issue of public interest. The court further finds that plaintiff has not met the burden of presenting substantial evidence the defendant’s statements are defamatory.” Judge Jim L. Fun, Order on Motion to Dismiss, July 23, 2012, page 8.
In fact, the more words and deeds that Mr. and Mrs. (Tonya) O’Neals permanently put into the public record online, the more questions they raised about their perspectives. Besides (1) this contention about being reported to DHS and (2) the “Impostor BGBC Blog,” two other issues emerged in the aftermath of the lawsuit: (3) Mrs. O’Neal’s “business cards” and (4) Mr. O’Neal’s license revocation. I see these four actions together as making the O’Neals’ approach to this public conflict problematic and certainly not very “positive” or “constructive” as a role model of Christian engagement in media, culture, or community.
Business Cards Promote the “Impostor Blog” – December 2012
According to the O’Neal’s website, Mrs. O’Neal created business cards that label Meaghan Varela and Julie Anne Smith as liars. These cards were designed to be handed out, used in public, perhaps even slipped under car windshield wipers. The BGBC “Mothers Who Will Not Be Silenced!” campaign also now features magnetic van-vertisements for display on vehicles, with the all-caps slogans: “LEAVE MY CHILDREN ALONE!” and “I AM A TRUE SURVIVOR” plus the O’Neals’ website address.
How can the general public and/or Christians interpret these as “positive” or even as “protecting” the O’Neal family? Is this all for “vindication” or vindictiveness? Is there any way to interpret this as ameliorating the level of conflict, or is it purposely escalating it? Is this rhetoric reasonable, inflammatory, or incendiary?
Mr. O’Neal’s Ministerial License Revoked by FGBC.
Or Did He Already Renounce It? December 2012 – January 2013
We learned the last week in December 2012 from a breaking news article on Apprising Ministries (December 28, 2012) that Mr. O’Neal’s ministry license had been revoked by his former accrediting denomination (apparently the local/regional group thereof) – the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC). The news was picked up by other “watchdog” sites, such as Christian Research Network (December 29, 2012). Julie Anne Smith covered the story on her December 30, 2012, post, “Chuck O’Neal’s Minister’s License Revoked and Warning to Readers!”
In response, Mr. O’Neal claims in his sermonaudio.com blog post from January 1, 2013, or shortly before, “Renounced, NOT Revoked – Part 1,” to have renounced his license from FGBC “as an act of conscience” in October 2008. This allegedly was over disputes with the fellowship.
In his blog posts on this subject, Mr. O’Neal seems at the very least severely critical of the FGBC, if not outright accusing them of not defending the faith and therefore holding to compromised doctrinal views. Oddly, however, it is not clear that he ever officially withdrew from this voluntary ecclesiastical association, as FGBC leaders had no prior knowledge of said letter. Also, Beaverton Grace Bible Church apparently continued paying dues to them from 2008 to the present. Dr. Greg Howell, leader of the regional FGBC ministerium, posted the following comment on January 3, 2013, to Part 1 of Mr. O’Neal’s series about his licensing.
To my knowledge, I never received your Oct 16, 2008 letter renouncing your licensure. This is the first that I have heard of it. And this is the first that I have become aware that you were even thinking of separating from the PNW or the FGBC. I’m surprised that your renunciation or the letter did not come up at our meeting in The Dalles. Also, I am puzzled, as to why if you renounced your ministerial credentials, have you been paying your dues?
As you know, the FGBC is a Fellowship of churches. Our association as churches is relational (around doctrinal distinctives of course), but our functioning together is because of our relationships with each other. That is why we are a “fellowship” rather than a “denomination.” If as your Oct. 2008 letter indicates, that you and the elders question your desire for continued association with the FGBC, maybe the honorable act on your part would be to withdraw as a member church.
Also, if you don’t mind, I would appreciate a full copy of your October 16, 2008 letter.
In “Renounced, NOT Revoked – Part 2,” Mr. O’Neal responds to the disciplinary action of the FGBC, and in fact rebukes them. He also shares the three action points that FGBC challenged him to do:
- Apologize to the men of the district ministerium.
- Withdraw the lawsuit.
- Re-apply for licensure
Also, in response to Dr. Howell’s request, Mr. O’Neal stated that he sent a letter to one of the FGBC members, Ray Feather. He posted a cut-and-paste version of the alleged text (not a scanned copy) in A Letter to a Genuine Pastor & Defender of the Faith.
NOTE: As of this writing – January 11, 2013 – the online community interested in the aftermath of the defamation lawsuit awaits details. While they may still be forthcoming, meanwhile, the actions and rancor involved in this association and licensure issue are raising questions. There are historical questions about how BGBC’s association with FGBC under the leadership of Mr. O’Neal. There are questions about the ethicality of renouncing licensing without officially notifying the licensing agency while BGBC apparently still pays dues to FGBC. It is also unknown at this time how long any disciplinary processes were ongoing that led up all three action points requested by FGBC, what it involved, and how it was being administered.
However, it seems reasonable to say at least this much at this point: License revocation is a very serious matter involving organizational oversight and integrity. Let’s assume for the moment that the FGBC accrediting group functions with credibility and biblical integrity in regard to restorative church discipline procedures. Then that would make this rare disciplinary action the end play of a substantive, but unsuccessful process of attempting to call Mr. O’Neal to account. If so, shouldn’t we see this at least as his reputation being reprimanded? And regardless of the credibility of this licensing group, how will Mr. O’Neal respond from here on out, in light of their actions?
* * * * * * *
Conclusions: Evaluating Mr. O’Neal’s
~ Responses to the Court’s Decision ~
What follow are my own conclusions, based on my interpretation of lawsuit events, court documents, and Mr. O’Neal’s statements and activities before, during, and after the court proceedings.
As I interpret the actions inside and outside the courtroom on this case, it seems to me that Mr. O’Neal did not do enough preparation up front in the way required by the ground rules the court was bound by. He and his legal team did not cross the threshold of “substantial evidence” to demonstrate that (1) the defendants statements were lies, spoken or written knowingly, and (2) were spoken or written with reckless disregard (“absolute malice”). As I re-read sections today from Judge Fun’s Order on Motion to Dismiss, those deficiencies are laid out as precisely why he found in favor of the defendants.
In reading the plaintiffs’ original Complaint, I also wondered at what I saw as consistent blurring of the lines between provable fact and personal opinion. Was Mr. O’Neal relying too much on conclusions he had already drawn from partial information and (in my opinion) a huge amount of speculation? Were his convictions actually conjecture? Many of the Motion to Strike documents from the defense point at this problem. Was he perhaps relying on evidence he might find during the expected processes of discovery, depositions, and cross-examination?
Also, filing an anti-SLAPP would be considered a routine legal response in a defamation lawsuit like this – especially where the allegations were not documented in the way the court required – not “legal maneuvering” to avoid legal consequences. Therefore, Mr. O’Neal and the members of BGBC could/should have anticipated that the anti-SLAPP process would likely be moved, and the discovery process frozen. They might therefore not ever have additional depositions, on-the-stand questioning, and cross-examination. Yet, Mr. O’Neal continually refers to this normal procedure of filing an anti-SLAPP motion as “legal maneuvering” by the two women his own out-of-court comments set up as the nemeses of himself and his church – Ms. Smith and Ms. Varela. He has said in press releases, blog posts, and blog comments that it deprived him of his day in court. He often mentions this when explaining why the O’Neals and BGBC members have continued their fight to “protect their families and church.”
In terms of the theological framework of the case, on the BGBC Survivors dot org website, Mr. O’Neal lays out a reasoned and understandable case for filing a lawsuit, given what he believed had happened in the situations with his family and his church. I can understand where he is coming from by seeing things through his perspective. That doesn’t mean I agree theologically with his interpretation of Scripture, or with how his principles would/wouldn’t apply, given what I believe happened in the situations. But, the problem of theological frameworks is a separate issue.
When it comes to the legal framework, in the final analysis, Mr. O’Neal himself is responsible for choosing to file the lawsuit and conduct the ongoing public activities in the name of defending his family/church. Mr. O’Neal himself is responsible for the consequences of Judge Fun dismissing their lawsuit as “not [meeting] the burden of presenting substantial evidence the defendant’s statements are defamatory.” Mr. O’Neal is responsible for incurring over $60,000 in expenses for himself and his church to pay for the defendants’ court costs and attorneys’ fees – in addition to whatever his own costs and fees were.
Despite his being challenged on this very issue of responsibility by multiple people, including myself, Mr. O’Neal has shifted focus to other activities, which many readers and blog commenters (including myself) find to be noxious. Their alternative BGBC Survivors website that uses a knock-off name from Ms. Smith’s original blog … business cards and magnetic car advertisers that declare their position as the “true” survivors … all seem to me to perpetuate a victim mentality and a commitment to stay tied to past offenses – apparently until they achieve the repentance they hope for or demand from the individuals they claim are responsible for lies, division, and defamation. They also appear to be deflecting attention from the issues of taking responsibility and moving on with life.
So, from all of this together, I find far more doubt than trust in what Mr. O’Neal says. Also, the way I see it, he is fixated on those he sees as the accusers to himself, his family, and his church. His stated purposes and motives sound godly, but this grasping for proving his position and challenging those excommunicated, now seems an idol. Events in December 2008 and January 2009 were, frankly, horrific. I get that. But now there is every reason to conclude that these offenses serve as the main marker in the life of this family and this church. BGBC leaders and members are choosing to keep themselves tethered to it, in orbit around this false raison d’être. I don’t see this as about living for “justice” – or for Jesus.
While these opinions may seem harsh, I feel I must state them – and forcefully so – because I see Mr. O’Neal’s ongoing comments along these lines as vindictive against the former defendants, and destructive for himself, his family, his church, and Christ’s Church. To me, his actions and statements indicate he’s attempting to perpetually re-try his case. And that represents an unwillingness to submit to the civil authorities he himself chose to put himself under when he took up this lawsuit.
But apparent rejection of those very ground rules seems to be what brought forth unexpected and unwanted results. Despite his opinion to the contrary, he did indeed have “his day in court” and he lost. Yet he has continued to submit his “case” in the court of public opinion, where there is evidence through blog comments that he is likewise losing there. When will Mr. O’Neal and BGBC stop holding on to these offenses, and start moving on to growth in grace?
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