Washington D.C., Jun 11, 2021 / 15:04 pm (CNA).
The Texas supreme court on Friday rejected a defamation lawsuit against the Lubbock diocese, filed by a former deacon who disputed the diocese listing him as “credibly accused” of abuse of a minor.
In an 8-1 decision, the Texas supreme court ruled that the First Amendment shields the internal management decisions of churches from secular courts and governments.
“The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prohibits civil courts from delving into matters of ‘theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them,’” the court’s majority decision stated.
“The doctrine is grounded in the First Amendment, which protects the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,’” the court ruled.
Becket, the legal group representing the diocese, applauded the ruling, arguing that dioceses must be free to implement their norms and policies on protection of children – which include investigating clergy and publishing names of clergy credibly accused of the abuse of children.
“The Church carries its mission well beyond its four walls,” said William Haun, counsel at Becket. “Religious organizations do not surrender their freedom to govern themselves just because they speak in public on matters affecting their faith, clergy, and moral witness,” he said.
“Any other decision would have amounted to punishing the Church for doing the right thing by its members,” he said.
On Friday, the court said that the diocese’s decision to list Guerrero was an internal church matter.
“That is, the deacon’s claims relating to the Diocese’s publication and communication of the results of its investigation cannot be severed from its policy to investigate its clergy in the first place,” the court stated.
“A civil court, though, is prohibited from determining whether a church properly applied its own principles and policies, and from interfering with internal management decisions that are central to its mission, such as investigating the conduct and character of its clergy,” the court stated.
In January 2019, the Diocese of Lubbock released its list of clergy credibly accused of the abuse of children. The list included the name of former deacon Jesus Guerrero, saying he had been credibly accused of the “sexual abuse of a minor” and was permanently removed from ministry in 2008.
Guerrero sued the diocese, claiming libel and defamation against him, and argued that he suffered a stroke brought on by the stress and anxiety of appearing on the list of accused clergy.
A lower state court ruled against the diocese, and a state appeals court declined to overturn that ruling, arguing that as the diocese had published the names of those accused, it was a public matter and not strictly an ecclesiastical issue – and was thus subject to court review.
The state supreme court agreed to consider the diocese’s appeal in June 2020.
Guerrero’s attorney said that his accuser was in her 40s and had not claimed abuse by Guerrero, according to United Press International.
In April 2019, after the lawsuit was filed, the Lubbock diocese issued a statement of clarification that Guerrero was not accused of abusing anyone under the age of 18; the diocese said that his alleged accuser was a vulnerable adult who “habitually lacks the use of reason,” and thus would be considered a minor under canon law.
According to canon 99 of the Code of Canon Law, “Whoever habitually lacks the use of reason is considered not responsible for oneself (non sui compos) and is equated with infants.”
Guerrero’s attorney disputed whether the woman was a “vulnerable adult” at the time of the abuse.
“The Diocese of Lubbock has concluded there is a credible allegation against Jesus Guerrero of sexual abuse of a person who habitually lacks the use of reason,” the diocese stated in April 2019.
The diocese explained that it considered an accusation “credible” when, “after review of reasonably available, relevant information in consultation with the Diocesan Review Board or other professionals, there is reason to believe is true.”
Guerrero’s attorney said that he did not dispute the Church’s authority to warn the faithful about abusers, but rather disputed the diocese’s claim that he was “credibly accused.”
“Churches have never enjoyed complete immunity,” Guerrero’s attorney Nick Olguin said, as reported by Courthouse News Service in January 2021 when the diocese asked the supreme court to toss out the case.
“Basically, what the diocese wants to do is play the game, make the rules and never be called on a foul,” he said.