Westbrook vs. Penley
By: Jesse WattersOctober 13, 2006
Two weeks ago, the Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that is testing the line when the right to personal privacy and the expression of religious principles collide. A woman confessed to her pastor, who also happens to be a professionally licensed marriage counselor, that she'd had an affair with another man and would be getting a divorce. She considered this a private conversation with a secular therapist, but the pastor believed it was a religious confession—and in their church, which strictly interprets the Bible—they believe in Matthew 18, that Jesus commands them to tell the congregation when a member has sinned. She has sued the pastor for defamation and professional negligence, while he argues that the church's doctrines are protected under the First Amendment and the courts cannot interfere with internal church matters.
A Factor producer told O'Reilly about the story on the morning conference call and Bill decided to send me to Texas to confront the pastor. "Be polite," he told me, "because we want him to answer us. Ask him why he did this, but if he gives you any jazz, say 'Whoa! ...this woman confessed to you in confidence... don't you think you betrayed her trust?'"
CrossLand Community Bible Church is in Fort Worth, Texas, and holds Sunday services at 10 a.m., so I expected to find pastor C.L. "Buddy" Westbrook there. I punched up a satellite image of the church on Google Earth to familiarize myself with the layout of the area before I left, and on my flight to Texas I reviewed the case timeline. Peggy Lee Penley paid Westbrook for several professional marriage counseling sessions in 1998 before he'd become a pastor. In 2000, when he'd become pastor of the church, Westbrook held meetings at his home with Penley, her husband, church elders and other couples from the church having marriage difficulties. Westbrook insists these sessions were church-affiliated "bible studies," but Penley says she saw them as secular.
Penley's marriage was crumbling, though; she legally separated from her husband, and flew to Tennessee to visit another man. Her still-husband at the time informed Westbrook, who called Penley in Tennessee and urged her to return home to try to save the marriage. Penley flew back to Texas, her husband picked her up and drove to Westbrook's home where church elders were gathered, and Penley told the pastor about her affair and her impending divorce. Penley claimed she was speaking to Westbrook as her counselor, not as pastor. She resigned from the church, but Westbrook informed the congregation, in a letter, that Penley had been in a "biblically inappropriate relationship" with another man, and asked the members to "shun" her as a form of church discipline.
The crew and I arrived at the church early Sunday morning and parked our car down the street. 15 minutes later, two Fort Worth squad cars pulled up. We showed the officers our ID's, and they explained that neighborhood people had called them wondering about our vehicle. I explained that I was from Fox News in New York and was awaiting an interview with the pastor. Turning to the crew, one of the officers said, "You two better take care of this New Yorker while he's down here in case anything happens." I couldn't tell if he was joking or not. As the police drove off, the sound technician told me, "People don't really like strangers around here."
Since I had no idea what "Buddy" Westbrook looked like, I decided to go into the church to watch him during the service. The CrossLand Community Bible Church is a one-level, rectangular, flat, simple building sitting in a large lot with dry brownish grass, located just off the highway. I walked in and stepped into the back of a small nondescript room where about thirty people in casual clothes were standing and singing along with the church band. I edged into a row and joined in the singing because the lyrics were projected onto a screen.
Eventually, Pastor Westbrook addressed the congregation. He's a short, friendly looking man in his 50's with white hair and a closely cropped white beard. Since I now knew what he looked like, I turned to leave, but he started speaking about the lawsuit and I stopped.
"This is spiritual warfare," he said. "When I was in court this week, I could feel that God was on our side. This is a landmark case... God is testing us, and we must be ready and mobilize for spiritual warfare... I have no regrets about what has happened." He was calm and measured. He then told the congregation that two members had just resigned the night before, citing as a major reason that they weren't prepared for the press attention the church was getting. "They are young and immature," said Westbrook. "Satan is trying to divide us, and we won't let it happen."
I left and waited in the car for the pastor in the church parking lot. Westbrook walked out 20 minutes later, and the crew and I approached him.
"Pastor? Can I ask you a few questions about the case? We're from Fox News in New York," I said as I walked up to him.
"Well, I'm apprehensive," he said, but stood still.
I said, "All we wanted to know was why you told the congregation the details of your client's marriage." A member of his congregation told him not to speak to us.
"She didn't disclose anything to me. I found out about it from different sources. And as a pastor, my job is to go after sheep. And so I did what the Bible instructs me to do. And so what I did was go after someone I loved and still love a great deal to try to bring about restoration."
I told him that Peggy Penley said she felt "humiliated and heartbroken" right now. Westbrook said he still loved her and was "still praying for her." I asked him a few more questions, which he answered, and I thanked him and left.
Back in New York
The first thing I did when I returned to work Monday was to call the attorneys for both Penley and the pastor. Darrell Keith, Penley's attorney, said that she was in a "terrible, sexless, distant, dead, neglectful marriage." Keith told me that Penley had eventually married the man she'd gone to see in Tennessee and she was much happier now, despite feeling defamed. I invited Darrell Keith to be on the show, but he declined at the request of his client.
Pastor Westbrook was represented by Liberty Legal Institute, and I spoke with their attorney Hiram Sasser, who told me that Penley had never even paid Westbrook a fee for the group counseling sessions after he'd become the pastor. Sasser asserted that what Westbrook did by calling her home from Tennessee to confront her and then informing the congregation was just what Jesus prescribes in the Bible and just what their church practices. Sasser told me Penley was aware of the church doctrine, and that in fact, she was a co-founder of the church.
I asked him which "other sources" told Westbrook about her infidelity, and Sasser answered that Penley's then-husband told him she had gone off to see another man in Tennessee, and that constituted a "biblically inappropriate relationship" in and of itself, regardless of whether she'd actually slept with him. I reported back to O'Reilly, who told me to book Sasser for the show.
On The Factor that night, O'Reilly said to Sasser, "My religion, Roman Catholicism, you go to confession. You tell a priest something, that's it. The priest can't tell anybody under pain of death. Now this pastor here... does he have the right to tell the entire congregation about this woman's marital difficulties, sir?"
"Well, not only does he have the legal right, but actually under Matthew 18, Jesus spoke specific words to this effect, and whether someone agrees with this theology or not is a matter of theological preference," replied Sasser. O'Reilly said he was "a good Catholic boy" but hadn't heard that before.
"It's Matthew 18, verses 15 through 17," said Sasser. "If you have a problem, a sinner within the church, then you're supposed to go to that person one-on-one. If they won't repent, then you've got to take a couple more people, Jesus said. And if they won't do that, finally you have to tell it to the church."
Bill shot back, "You're not quoting Matthew, because Matthew really didn't talk that way. I'm going to say that's bull. I'm going to say that that's the pastor's interpretation, that he has a right to tell his whole congregation about any sin that he becomes aware of in his church. That's insane. I don't know why anybody would go to a church like that. And I think you're going to lose the lawsuit, because I don't think in this country, with separation of church and state, that you can humiliate somebody like Westbrook humiliated this woman."
Sasser said courts shouldn't be the ones interpreting scripture and should steer clear of internal church disputes, but Bill said Penley was "defamed" by Westbrook and that pastors must "obey the law too." Bill said he'd follow the case and thanked Sasser for appearing.
The Texas Supreme Court is not expected to rule for several months, and when it does, it could be, as Pastor Westbrook described it, a "landmark" decision. And, of course, the Factor will be there to report what happens.
Jesse Watters has been a producer for The OReilly Factor since 2003. Before joining Fox News, Watters worked on political campaigns and in finance. He received a B.A. in History from Trinity College (Hartford, CT) in 2001. Watters was born and raised in Philadelphia and moved to New York in 1995.