United States: Catholic Priest Permitted To Conceal Non-Privileged Nature Of Defamatory Communication Until Statute Of Limitations Runs

Last Updated: April 28 2014
Article by David A. Kluft

In a recent unanimous decision in Harrington v. Costello, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that the statute of limitations had run out on a Catholic priest's defamation claim against his colleague, even though the colleague had allegedly fraudulently concealed the source of the defamatory statement.


The plaintiff, John Harrington, was a priest at St. Patrick's Church in Falmouth, Massachusetts.  The defendant, William Costello, was a pastor at neighboring St. Anthony's Catholic Church in East Falmouth. In 2005, Costello reported to the Diocese that a parishioner had accused Harrington of stalking the parishioner's teenage son. When the Diocese investigated the accusation, it learned that the parishioner denied having spoken to Costello about this. Costello then stated that it was actually an unnamed co-worker of the parishioner who made the accusation. The accusation was reported to certain staff members of the church, and Harrington was removed from his post.

In 2007, Harrington learned the identity of the co-worker and met with him.  The co-worker denied having accused Harrington of wrongdoing. At this point, the complaint alleges, Harrington discovered that Costello, his fellow priest, had made the whole thing up.

In 2010, less than three years after speaking with the co-worker, Harrington sued Costello and other members of the Diocese hierarchy for defamation. The defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that the claim was not brought within the three year statute of limitations, in other words, within three years of the publication of the accusation in 2005.  The Superior Court granted the motion and Harrington appealed.

Defamation and Privilege in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, a defamation plaintiff who is not a public figure must establish that (1) the defendant published a statement regarding the plaintiff; (2) the statement was false; (3) the defendant knew it was false, or was reckless or negligent as to its truth; (4) the statement was defamatory, in that it was capable of damaging the plaintiff's reputation; and (5) the publication caused harm.

Some statements meet all of these elements but are nevertheless non-actionable because they are considered "privileged."  The Massachusetts "common interest" privilege allow persons to republish defamatory statements to a limited extent if the republication is reasonably necessary to protect a legitimate common interest.  Sharing credible reports of a threat to a child's safety among adults responsible for that child's welfare, as in this case, would almost certainly be protected by this privilege.

When Did Harrington's Claim Accrue?

The issue on appeal was when Harrington's claim accrued. Harrington argued that, although defamation claims usually accrue when the defamatory statement is published, the "discovery rule" tolls this accrual until a plaintiff knows or with reasonable diligence should know that he was harmed and that this harm was caused by the defendant's conduct.

Here, Harrington claims he would have sued right away had he known that the accusation had been fabricated with malicious intent by Costello.  But in 2005, he thought Costello was merely republishing someone else's defamatory statement in a privileged manner. Any claim he had brought against Costello based on this privileged republication would have failed. Therefore, Harrington argued, it is only fair that his cause of action did not accrue until he realized Costello's statements were not in fact privileged.

One member of the Massachusetts Appeals Court panel, Judge Joseph Trainor, agreed and asked the question: Who was Harrington supposed to sue in 2005? He didn't yet know that Costello was the real wrongdoer and had been falsely informed that the defamatory statement was made by a third party whose identity Costello refused to reveal. In short, Judge Trainor argued that it was reasonable for Harrington not to sue Costello in 2005.

A Far From Perfect Compromise

But the majority of the Appeals Court panel and a unanimous SJC disagreed. Accrual under the discovery rule is not delayed just because a plaintiff hasn't yet realized he has a winning case. Irrespective of the real source of the accusation, Harrington had enough information to sue back in 2005: he knew a false statement had been published, he knew that it harmed him, and he knew the identity of the person (Costello) who uttered the statement that caused the harm. For the same reasons, the Court rejected Harrington's argument that the limitations period should be tolled on the grounds of fraudulent concealment. The fact that Costello was publishing — or republishing — a false defamatory statement was never concealed; only his motive for doing so.

The SJC seemed to appreciate the harsh appearance of this holding, and acknowledged that Harrington's arguments had "appeal."  However, the Court would not allow a defamation claim to be tolled once the plaintiff already had knowledge of the defendant's identity, of the publication, of the statement's falsity and of the harm. To do so, the Court stated, would upset "society's considered, although often far from perfect, compromise between a plaintiff's need to remediate wrongs and society's need for closure."

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