Allegations of sexual misconduct landed one Lubbock deacon on a list of credibly accused sex offenders that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lubbock published in January 2019. His defamation suit incited a case that reached the Texas Supreme Court, which just ruled in favor of the diocese’s choice to publish his name.
The court felt that a ruling in the deacon’s favor would be an improper intervention in church dealings. In other words, it falls beyond the scope of civil courts to tackle questions of church law.
“We conclude that the substance and nature of the deacon’s claims against his church will necessarily require the trial court to evaluate whether the Diocese properly applied Canon Law and are inextricably intertwined with the Diocese’s internal directive to investigate its clergy,” Justice John Devine wrote in the majority opinion.
“This inquiry would not only cause a court to evaluate whether the Diocese properly applied Canon Law but would also permit the same court to interlineate its own views of a Canonical term.”
Longstanding legal tradition forbids courts from interfering with church discipline. This precedent, known as the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, is rooted in the First Amendment.
Despite the public nature of the case, church law is at the heart of the dispute.
The deacon, Jesus Guerrero, reportedly engaged in sexual misconduct with a woman suffering from mental and emotional disorders in the 2000s, according to the diocese’s brief. The bishop indefinitely suspended Guererros’ diaconal faculties until 2006, when the diocese reinstated him. New allegations involving the same woman led the bishop to permanently withdraw Guerrero’s diaconal faculties in November 2008.
The diocese published his name on a list of accused sex offenders in 2019, originally labeled “Clergy with a Credible Allegation of Sexual Abuse of a Minor” but later corrected to include “vulnerable adults” alongside children.
Guerrero then sued for defamation, accusing the church of implying that he molested a child.
Importantly, Roman Catholic church law defines the term “minor” more encompassingly than the State of Texas. With regards to sexual abuse, the Sacramentarum Sanctitatis Tutela considers “a person who habitually has the imperfect use of reason” to be equivalent to a child under the age of 18.
The bishop did not laicize Guerrero, meaning he remains an ordained deacon even though he cannot perform sacramental duties. Thus, Guerrero is still subject to church law, and doctrinal questions about the woman’s “use of reason” complicate his civil defamation claims.
Guerrero denies all allegations of sexual misconduct and noted in his brief that, officially, he has “never been accused, investigated, criminally charged or questioned regarding any accusations of sexual abuse against any minor.”
His brief also notes that the diocese used private investigators and secular media to gather and publish the allegations, potentially leaving the legal shelter of the church and its First Amendment protections.
Justice Jeffrey Boyd was the lone dissenter. His dissenting opinion hasn’t been released yet, but Boyd previously questioned whether the diocese’s actions could be counted as private church discipline.
“What makes this one more difficult, it seems to me, is the fact that the diocese chose to issue press releases and put the information on a public website,” Boyd said during oral arguments.
His remarks occasionally aligned with the arguments of Guerrero’s lawyer, who said “the church went outside the church” to act on the allegations.
“My point there is that not only was the publication made outside the confines of the church, but the decision-making process involved outsiders,” Guerrero’s attorney said.
The Becket Fund, a religious freedom advocacy firm that aided the diocese’s defense, called the ruling a win for religious liberty.
“We are happy that the court recognized that fundamental truth today, and that the First Amendment does not allow government bodies — including courts — to interfere with internal religious decisions,” Becket stated.
“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.”
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