Harvest Bible Chapel says it's dropping defamation suit against critics so it can keep records private

 
 
Updated 1/7/2019 11:37 PM
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  • Last year, Harvest Bible Chapel sued former members who criticized the Rolling Meadows-based church.

    Last year, Harvest Bible Chapel sued former members who criticized the Rolling Meadows-based church. Daily Herald file photo, 2015

Harvest Bible Chapel says it's dropping its defamation lawsuit against three critics after a Cook County judge Monday ruled against the church's request to keep some documents private.

The church announced the move on its website, harvestbiblechapel.org.

The message, ascribed to the Executive Committee of Elders, said the judge's decision was unexpected. The church had asked in December for discovery to be stayed until the judge ruled on the defendants' motions to dismiss the case, because the defendants were publishing some of the materials their lawyers had received.

Alternatively, it asked the court to order the materials be kept temporarily from public view.

"Recent events have made it clear that any further private content subpoenaed from third and fourth parties will likely be publicized online," the elders posted.

"The result is that even if we filed a motion to reconsider, even if we amended the complaint to exclude private matters sensitive to some third parties, the court appears unwilling to protect our many friends, including those with whom we seek to reconcile.

"In good conscience we cannot knowingly subject innocent people, in many instances against their will, to a full subpoena process."

Harvest sued Julie Roys of Carol Stream, Ryan and Melinda Mahoney of Wheaton, and Scott and Sarah Bryant of Geneva in October. Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant write TheElephantsDebt.com website, and Roys is a freelance writer on Christianity, a blogger and a former radio show host.

Melinda Mahoney and Sarah Bryant were included because, the suit said, they provided computers and internet service to The Elephant's Debt.

The suit accused The Elephant's Debt of conducting an "ongoing campaign of harassment" and publishing defamatory statements that painted MacDonald in a false light. It said the publication constituted commercial disparagement, interfering in the business of the church -- namely, persuading people to become faithful Christians.

Roys in particular possessed subpoenaed records, including items from former workers and elders, about how the church handled reports that one of its youth ministers was sending sexually explicit photos and requests to minors. The minister was charged in October with misdemeanor sexual exploitation of a minor, and disorderly conduct, in Kane County circuit court. The case is pending.

The Elephant's Debt has criticized the church's founding pastor, senior pastor James S. MacDonald; his treatment of employees and elders; its finances; and its relationship with Harvest Bible Fellowship, an organization of churches it had founded worldwide. The Mahoneys and Bryants are former members.

Monday night, Scott Bryant said he was not surprised by the ruling, "mostly because it (the request) is pre-emptive. It is hard to shut down free speech," He suspected Harvest would quickly drop the suit.

"I am in no way surprised at the results," Ryan Mahoney said.

Both said they had been surprised by the lawsuit in the first place, because their website had not written anything about Harvest from January 2018 to the time of the suit.

Scott Bryant said he suspects they were "wrapped in" because Roys was working on an article about the youth pastor case.

Both say they remain cautious, noting Harvest still has to file a motion to dismiss. Scott Bryant estimated they have spent at least $15,000 on legal fees.

Both call the lawsuit frivolous, and Mahoney said the church and MacDonald have defamed the two of them by calling their actions illegal.

MacDonald founded Harvest Bible in Rolling Meadows in 1988. It has campuses in Elgin, Aurora, Deerfield, Crystal Lake, Highland Park, Niles, Chicago and Naples, Florida.

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