On March 14, 1994, John Scott Rogers's world collapsed. That was the day he pulled his car over and called a toll-free number he'd heard on Christian radio. He'd been listening to a show about childhood sexual abuse.
One thing in particular made him stop his car that day: the fact that adults who had been abused as children were themselves much more likely to abuse their own children. Mr. Rogers had been abused. Now that he had two small children of his own, he was concerned. He wanted counseling and prayer. He wanted someone to reassure him that he wasn't bound to repeat the cycle of abuse.
What he got instead was a visit from the department of social services. He got handcuffed. He got an order not to be alone with his children. And most of all, he says, he got a bad name.
It took him three years and a week, but Mr. Rogers got his good name back--at least for now. Last week in Atlanta, a jury awarded Mr. Rogers and his wife Leisa $1 million in compensatory damages for the ordeal they had suffered in 1994. "After the verdict, the first words that they spoke to me had nothing to do with money," says their attorney, Michael Bertling. "For both of them, the first thing was that they'd finally cleared their name."
Mr. Rogers's good name comes at the expense of one of the best-known names in Christian broadcasting. When Mr. Rogers stopped to make the phone call that became the focus of the lawsuit, he was listening to the daily radio show of the Minirth Meier New Life Clinics, the nation's largest provider of Christian psychiatric care and one of the most popular broadcasters on Christian radio. MMNL claimed that he admitted to abusing his children, and that they were thus required to report him to law enforcement officials. Mr. Rogers insisted that he had never abused his children, and that the clinic was trying to strong-arm him into enrolling in a $1,000-a-day inpatient counseling program.
After a state investigation cleared Mr. Rogers of any lawbreaking, he sued MMNL and its Atlanta affiliate. The jury was instructed on three counts: intentional infliction of emotional distress, slander, and negligence. Mr. Bertling stressed that the verdict in favor of his client did not specify on which of those counts--or which combination of the three--the jury was holding MMNL responsible: "There was not necessarily any jury determination of evil intent. The decision could have been based solely on negligence. Besides, this was only one specific clinic in Atlanta, not an indictment of the entire organization."
Still, the entire organization may feel the repercussions of the jury's verdict. Now known simply as New Life Clinics after the departure of founding member Frank Minirth, the organization's 70 clinics nationwide will face the task of living down the publicity generated by the jury verdict. Radio has been a key factor in generating patient inquiries, but New Life's roster of some 175 stations is down considerably from its peak of more than 200, and adding new stations probably won't be easy.
Though Dr. Minirth could not be reached for comment, his former partners at New Life Clinics deny any improprieties in the Rogers case. Connie McCoy, a New Life spokesman, said that confidential settlement discussions are underway and that a motion for a new trial will be filed on the grounds that "the verdict was not substantiated by the evidence and the damages awarded were excessive." She insists, "We still maintain that we acted according to law." And although she could not say whether any policy changes or procedural safeguards would be implemented to prevent a repeat of the incident, she did state that "New Life Clinics' policy regarding the issue of child abuse is based on state and federal law."
Although a jury of his peers cleared Mr. Rogers's name, New Life Clinics is still not so sure. A spokesman called WORLD to point out that Mr. Rogers had had a second complaint filed against him with Georgia's Department of Family and Child Services. However, John McLario, senior partner at the firm representing the Rogerses, said that the second complaint was filed by angry neighbors, had nothing whatever to do with child abuse, and was never substantiated by DFCS. The claim was "a big zero," he said.