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Former Windsor minister wins defamation suit over molestation charge

A former Lutheran minister once accused of molesting a boy in his Windsor congregation has won a defamation suit against the church and its district president.

Christopher Benson, now a Bay Area financial consultant, was awarded nearly $300,000 in damages from the Livermore-based California-Nevada-Hawaii District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The sum included $1,000 from district President Robert D. Newton, according to court records.

The case stems from allegations raised in 2008 by a 20-year-old man from Windsor's Vineyard of Faith Lutheran Church who claimed he had been touched inappropriately by Benson when he was 14.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office opened an investigation into the matter but no criminal case was filed.

The accuser then filed a civil lawsuit against Benson and the church in June 2009 in Sonoma County Superior Court, but that case was settled 18 months later, according to court records. The terms of the settlement were sealed, though Benson said he was not required to pay anything to the plaintiff. Court records indicate both men were to cover their own legal fees.

During that suit, Benson learned about a 2008 letter in which Newton, his former supervisor, sought help from a prospective attorney on behalf of the accuser.

Newton wrote that he believed the alleged victim was telling the truth and had been "victimized sexually by this associate pastor."

"I admire his courage for coming forward at this time and exposing a dark and hideous evil too long hidden," Newton wrote, according to Benson's defamation suit.

Newton said in a recent interview that he was expressing an opinion.

But Benson filed a

libel suit

in October 2010 in San Francisco Superior Court, arguing he had been falsely accused in the first place and was thus defamed when Newton repeated the claims as if they were undisputed truth.

Under California law, "any accusation of molestation is libelous per se," his attorney, Edward Casey, said. "And so, if such an accusation is made, the burden is on the person who's saying it to prove that what they said is true. And they could not prove at trial that these accusations were true."

Attorney Bradley Thomas, who represented Newton and the church district, said jurors who decided the case last fall heard from Benson and Newton, among others. Thomas tried to subpoena the man who first accused Benson, but he could not be located and the jury never heard his story, Thomas said.

Benson said it was the credibility of his own story that swayed jurors.

"A jury heard the difference between the two, and the jury found in my favor," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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