Church not a cult but loses all but one suit

The Straits Times (Singapore)/November 11, 1997
By Tan Ool Boon

The High Court yesterday ruled that the Central Christian Church (CCC) was not a cult but the church still failed in all but one of its defamation suits against two newspapers and a magazine because the reports were written fairly and in the public interest.

Justice Warren Khoo held that the defendants -- the editors of The New Paper, the Chinese-language evening daily Lianhe Wanbao, and the Christian magazine, Impact -- had succeeded in showing that they had been honest in expressing their comment when they called the church "a cult" in reports published in November 1991.

So the judge struck out four of the five defamation suits brought by the church and its founder, Mr John Philip Louis.

But the church succeeded in part in its suit against The New Paper because, while Justice Khoo held that the newspaper's report was fair, the prominent front-page headline "2 Cults Exposed" was not. The judge felt that the headline amounted to sensationalism.

So the church was entitled to claim damages for the defamatory headline. This amount will be determined later in a separate hearing. But Mr Louis was not entitled to any compensation because his name did not appear on TNP's front page, the judge said.

His other claims failed because the judge had said at the beginning of the trial in July this year that his case "would stand or fall" with the church's case. Delivering the ruling in a written judgment yesterday, Justice Khoo said that while the editors had failed to justify their calling the church "a cult", their reports or comment on the church were "something a fair-minded person could honestly have made".

Given the national cultural habit of tolerance and acceptance of different religious faiths in Singapore, he said, most Singaporeans, especially the non-Christians, would probably not consider the church as a cult. He added: "However, it would not be difficult to find a substantial number of people, particularly those in the mainstream Christian faith, who believe, perhaps quite strongly, that the CCC is a cult."

He pointed out that the law would allow the right of these people to express such a view if they did so honestly and within reasonable bounds. This, he said, was because such "fair comment" was "an essential part of the greater right of free speech".

In this case, said the judge, the word "cult" did not mean the church was dangerous and destructive, but that it was "a group with such extreme doctrine and practice that it should be shunned by right-thinking members of society".

There was no doubt, he noted, that the subject matter of the publication was of public interest.

But the judge said the defence of fair comment succeeded in this case because given the evidence, an honest man could also have said what the defendants had reported in their articles. He said: "It is the bane of any new religious movement on the fringe to be labelled a cult by those in the centre."

He ordered the lawyers for the parties to appear before him on a date to be fixed later to argue on legal costs and the damages for the church in its suit against TNP.

Why church wasn't considered cult

The Central Christian Church may have some controversial beliefs and practices, but the evidence submitted by two newspapers and a Christian magazine on this matter was insufficient to justify them calling it a cult, the High Court held yesterday.

The defendants -- the editors of The New Paper, the Chinese-language evening daily Lianhe Wanbao and the Christian magazine Impact -- had detailed practices such as re-baptism by the CCC as it regarded itself as the "true church", and confessing of sins to church leaders during the court hearing.

Church members, or disciples, also had to obey church leaders. They also had to recruit new members.

But Justice Warren Khoo said: "What CCC teaches is probably no more strange that what is taught by many others. The same can be said about almost everything else that is practised by the CCC -- the discipleship, the control, the unremitting demands."

Justice Khoo said he had found that witnesses for both sides had taken their oath seriously during the trial. He said: "Different witnesses tend to put different colours to the facts, depending on which side they are on. However, whether the defence of justification succeeds on proof of these allegations is a different matter."

In this case, he found that the defendants had failed to justify the main sting of calling the CCC a cult. The CCC "was not a commune of half-crazed people living in isolation from the world at large, worshipping and kissing the foot of some self-appointed messiah or prophet", he said.

Its members had full-time jobs like other church members, and they did not give up their assets to the church. The CCC leaders also did not "live in riches on the backs of its members".

The judge said: "It is not a secret organisation run by persons with an agenda which is kept secret from its members. People are welcome to join its meetings and services." He added that the church had, in fact, wanted people to attend these activities so that they could see if they wished to join.

He said: "They are made fully aware of what being a member would involve. People are never deceived or tricked or trapped into joining it."

And while the church would dissuade a member from leaving, he would not be stopped if he were bent on doing so, he said.

He pointed out that since the CCC started here in 1987, the people who had left the group far outnumbered the existing members.

Press Privilege
Newspapers' privilege no greater than private citizen

Newspapers are protected by privilege when it comes to covering formal proceedings such as Parliament sessions or court hearings.

But in other matters, the privilege enjoyed by the press is not greater than that enjoyed by a private citizen, Justice Warren Khoo said yesterday when he commented on the defense of qualified privilege in defamation suits.

In the case involving the Central Christian church, the editors used this defense because it was their case that they had a legal, moral, or social duty to publish the reports and that their readers had a similar duty to receive them.

But the High Court ruled that only the Christian magazine, Impact, succeeded in this defense because its readers, who were mainly from the Christian community, fell within the category of "interested" recipients of such information, as defined by law.

This court ruled that the defense was not available to either The New Paper or Lianhe Wanbao because their news reports of the church would be of interest only to a section of the public, and not to all their readers.

Justice Khoo said: "Journalists, no doubt, regard it as their professional duty to report on any matter of public interest. That, after all, is one of the main functions of the media."

But he said that if they defamed someone and they wanted to rely on the defense of qualified privilege, the fact that the libel was published in the course of such professional duty alone was not good enough.

He pointed out that the journalists would have to prove that the related information must be of interest to the public at large and not just a section of it.

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