Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine Requires Dismissal of Priest's Defamation Suit

In Diocese of Palm Beach, Inc. v. Gallagher, (FL App., May 9, 2018), a Florida state appellate court held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine requires dismissal of a defamation suit brought by a Catholic priest against the diocese in which he served.  Father John Gallagher was not offered the position of pastor at Holy Name Church, and was reassigned.  He rejected the transfer and instead took a leave, contending that the reassignment was punishment for his attempt to expose inadequacies in the way in which the diocese handled sexual abuse claims.  In response to his going public with these charges, diocese officials made comments that led to Gallagher's lawsuit.  As related in the court's opinion:
Father Gallagher claimed the diocese defamed him in newspaper articles, letters to parishioners which were read at masses, press statements posted on the diocese webpage, electronic mail among diocese personnel, and postings on diocese personnel’s social media. These statements, Father Gallagher alleged, defamed him by calling him a liar, unfit to be a priest, and in need of professional help.
Rejecting the trial court's conclusion to the contrary, the Court of Appeals held:
[T]o, to resolve Father Gallagher’s actual damages claim, the courts would have to determine whether the diocese’s reasons for not making him a pastor, and reassigning him to another church, were valid religious reasons concerning Father Gallagher’s fitness for the job, or retaliation for Father Gallagher’s whistleblowing....  [W]e would be required to weigh the effect of Father Gallagher’s problems with his Hispanic congregants on the advisory committee’s decision to pass over Father Gallagher for the position of pastor, and whether this was a valid religious reason for the diocese’s decision.....
We are not permitted to look behind the diocese’s ministerial employment decision because doing so would necessarily entangle us in questions about the religious reasons why Father Gallagher was not promoted under canonical law.
Daily Business Review reports on the decision.