Jan. 17 (UPI) -- The Catholic Diocese of Lubbock, Texas, is fighting a defamation lawsuit from a former deacon who claims he was falsely labeled a child molester as the Roman Catholic Church grappled with a worldwide scandal over clergy sex abuse.
The diocese is taking the case to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that allowing the claims to be heard in a civil court would unconstitutionally impede the church's authority to manage its own affairs. The Seventh Court of Appeals of Texas rejected that argument last month and upheld a judge's ruling denying a request to dismiss the suit.
Jesus Guerrero, 76, sued after he was included on a list titled "Names of All Clergy with a Credible Allegation of Sexual Abuse of a Minor" posted Jan. 31, 2019, on the diocese website.
In September 2018, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops decided to release the names of "credibly accused" clergy members. Dioceses across the United States released such lists as the Catholic Church faces thousands of new abuse allegations, and law enforcement agencies are opening investigations.
"Churches and other religious organizations should not face retribution in the courts for warning their members about credible accusations of sexual abuse," said William Haun, an attorney at the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the diocese at the state Supreme Court. "We need more transparency, not less, when it comes to abuse of the vulnerable."
Three other priests in Texas also have filed suits against the church over their inclusion on a list of "credibly accused" clergy members, the Corpus Christi Caller Times reported. They claim they were defamed and seek to have their names removed from the list and an apology issued.
Guerrero's lawsuit, which describes him as "a faithful servant of God in the Catholic Church his entire life," says he has never been investigated for sexual abuse or misconduct of a minor. His accuser was in her 40s, and she has said Guerrero did not abuse her, said Nick Olguin, an attorney for Guerrero.
Rather, he said, two witnesses claimed to have seen Guerrero -- who denies abusing anyone -- leaving the same room as the woman while adjusting his clothes.
After the suit was filed, the diocese issued a statement saying the accuser is a person "who habitually lacks the use of reason" and is considered equivalent to a minor under canon law. Olguin disputes that the woman is a vulnerable adult and says in a brief that she lives independently and has never been found incompetent.
The brief also says a Catholic Church representative said in a TV interview that one of three circumstances would make an allegation credible: The accused admits to doing it; the accused has been found guilty in court; or someone who witnessed abuse has testified about it. None of those apply in Guerrero's case, the brief claims.
In compiling the list, a retired police officer and an attorney were hired to review the files of all bishops, priests and deacons who had been accused since the Diocese of Lubbock was created in 1983.
The list named four priests, two of whom are dead, and Guerrero. Court records say Guerrero was suspended in 2003, reinstated in 2006 and permanently removed as a deacon in 2008.
Deacons are ordained ministers of the Catholic Church and have the authority to baptize, assist the priest at Mass, preach homilies, celebrate weddings and conduct funeral rites.
After the list was published, Olguin asked for a retraction on behalf of his client but none had been issued by the time the suit was filed in 237th District Court in Lubbock on March 22. The suit accuses the diocese of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress and seeks more than $1 million in damages.
On April 10, the church issued a clarification, saying in part, "The Diocese of Lubbock has no information of a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor below the age of eighteen (18) by Jesus Guerrero. 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 of Lubbock regrets any misunderstanding that may have arisen from the Jan. 31 posting."
The clarification did not get the same attention as the original, and in publishing that admission, "the church continued its assault on Jesus by claiming that he has sexually abused a vulnerable adult without any credible evidence whatsoever," Olguin says in a brief.
After the list was published, Guerrero suffered severe anxiety and stress that led, at least in part, to a stroke, according to the brief.
The diocese, citing the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, filed motions seeking to get the suit dismissed. The doctrine generally bars civil courts from adjudicating matters concerning theology, theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government and compliance with church moral doctrine.
After Judge Les Hatch denied the motions, the diocese asked the Seventh Court of Appeals to reverse the decision. The diocese's lawyers said Guerrero was not accused of being a child molester but of having a credible allegation against him of sexual abuse of a person whom the church equates with a minor.
"By ignoring the definition of a 'minor' in the canon law, a court would unlawfully intrude on the diocese's exercise of its First Amendment rights," the brief says.
The brief also says that if Guerrero were truly interested in challenging the diocese's investigation, church law gives him every right to restore his reputation.
In a 3-0 opinion issued Dec. 6, the appeals court declined to overturn Hatch's ruling. Writing for the court, Chief Justice Brian Quinn notes the inherent conflict between civil and religious authority that is captured in Matthew 22:21, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."
Matters of church discipline are ecclesiastical and generally outside the jurisdiction of civil courts, the opinion says. However, the diocese "placed the controversy in the realm of Caesar or the secular world by opting to leave the confines of the church," Quinn writes.
"What we have before us is not an incidental public disclosure of internal church disciplinary matter," the opinion also says. "Nor was the information leaked to the public via the media by individuals lacking permission to do so."
Instead, the diocese posted the list on a website accessible by the public and brought attention to it through a news release and interviews with local media outlets, the opinion says.
In addition, statements made by the church -- including that "our dioceses are serious about ending the cycle of abuse in the church and in society at large" -- are an acknowledgement that the issue is more than a church matter, Quinn writes.
Olguin told UPI that he doesn't think the government should tell the church how to run.
"But when you step out from behind the pulpit and go out in the real world, the rules should apply to you," he said.