A church deacon’s defamation suit against his diocese fails because the lawsuit involves matters of canonical law and, thus, the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine applies, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled.
In September 2018, the Catholic bishops of Texas released the names of clergy against whom there were credible claims of sexual abuse of minors. The bishops did so to protect children from sexual abuse and to restore trust in the church. The lists were posted on each diocese’s website on Jan. 31, 2019.
Jesus Guerrero, a deacon of the Diocese of Lubbock, was included on that diocese’s list. However, Guerrero had never had a complaint of any sort from a child. Ordained in 1997, Guerrero was temporarily suspended by the diocese after reports of sexual misconduct involving him and a woman with a history of emotional disorders. The diocese suspended his diaconal privileges, but reinstated them in 2006. Another allegation involving the same woman led the diocese to permanently withdraw Guerrero’s diaconal privileges, but he remained an ordained deacon.
Guerrero sought removal of his name from the list. However, the Lubbock Diocese refused to remove his name, as there were complaints that he had sexually abused a vulnerable adult, which the diocese viewed as someone having the same capacity as a child.
Guerrero then sued for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He alleged that the diocese defamed him because it falsely stated or implied that he had sexually abused a child.
The diocese responded with a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, the state’s law that targets so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP suits). The diocese also argued that the suit should be dismissed because of the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine, which prohibits civil courts from delving into religious matters of churches.
The trial court denied both motions. The Texas Court of Appeals denied the diocese’s petition for protection under the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine, reasoning that once the diocese released the list to the public, the dispute was no longer ecclesiastical.
The diocese appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which reversed and found that the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine did apply in its June 11, 2021, decision in In Re Diocese of Lubbock.
“Churches have a fundamental right to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church governance as well as those of faith and doctrine,” the court wrote. “It is a core tenet of the First Amendment that in resolving civil claims courts must be careful not to intrude upon internal affairs of church governance and autonomy.”
The state high court explained that to determine whether the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine applies, courts must analyze a lawsuit as to whether the dispute is ecclesiastical or merely a civil-law controversy. Furthermore, if the nature of a plaintiff’s lawsuit claims is inextricably intertwined with church doctrine, the case must be dismissed.
The Texas Supreme Court concluded that “[t]o the extent that Guerrero’s claims directly call into question the Diocese’s investigation and conclusions that led to the creation of the list, they necessarily reach beyond the ecclesiastical curtain.” The diocese based its definition of a minor on the canonical meaning of the term as a “person who habitually lacks the use of reason,” which the diocese says includes a vulnerable adult.
Guerrero had argued that the diocese went beyond ecclesiastical matters when it published the list to the public. But the state high court countered that the key is “whether the substance and nature of the plaintiff’s claims implicate ecclesiastical matters, including a church’s internal affairs, governance, or administration.”
Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd dissented, writing that the diocese “did not provide its unique definition of the term ‘minor’ when it published its list and other statements referring to abuse of ‘children’ to the general public.” He said the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine should not apply to defamation claims based on statements made to the public.
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David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech(2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).