A Treasure Coast minister sued a nationally recognized cult expert in state civil court Friday, alleging he committed libel by calling her ministry a cult on his Web site.
The Rev. Judy Hammond said she was shocked to find her Pure Bride Ministries Inc. on deprogrammer Rick Ross' site and called his description "false and scandalous" in her suit. She maintained that it amounted to libel, slander and interference with a business and requested an injunction that would silence Ross, who is based in Jersey City, N.J.
Hammond also demanded $15 million, money she claimed her ministry - now based in St. Lucie County - lost during the past two years because of Ross' statements. Hammond could not be reached for comment Friday.
Speaking from his New York office Friday, Ross called the suit frivolous, more harassment from a group that has called and mailed him complaints. Now a consultant and lecturer, Ross is frequently interviewed (most recently by New York and Details magazines), has lectured at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago and University of Arizona, and earned a high profile after assisting the FBI investigation of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. He cited a suit filed by another group listed on the site that was recently dismissed, both in local state court and on appeal.
According to Hammond's suit, Ross attracted her attention in August 1999, when the South Carolina minister discovered the www.culteducation.com site. The suit said Pure Bride Ministries, a Bible- based ministry that "exposed errors within the church" and recruited both pastors and lay people, enjoyed a healthy following. By January 2000 it was losing followers and seeing fewer recruits, the suit said, and Hammond was forced to relocate - all because of the Web site.
Although the site profiles dozens of groups, Pure Bride Ministries is only listed by name with the disclaimer "Rick Ross has information about the following groups on file, but at this time that information has not yet been posted within this Web site." According to the site, those interested may receive information about a group for the price of postage.
Hammond alleges in her suit that Ross' file contained misleading claims that ended up in a South Carolina father's divorce case. Ross said he [acted professionally as a court expert witness and simply submitted an affidavit about the ministry after reviewing documents, testimonies and group literature that were submitted to him and are also within his file. That amounted to little more than sworn testimony [through a divorce case, which might potentially affect child custody]. Given that he is a qualified court expert who has testified in numerous cases, he said, he felt justified aiding the man, who eventually won custody of his children.
Ross said the disclaimer on his site makes it clear that organizations he investigates are not branded as cults. The site's purpose is to inform the public and researchers.
"Simply because a group is listed on my Web site does not mean anything more than that the group is controversial," Ross said. "There's no judgment about Ms. Hammond's group made on my Web site."
Note: The lawsuit was dismissed six months later.
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