Sunday, June 13, 2021

Deacon's Defamation Suit Against Diocese Dismissed Under Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

In In re Diocese of Lubbock, (TX Sup. Ct., June 11, 2021), the Texas Supreme Court in a 7-1 decision, held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine requires the trial court to dismiss an action for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress brought by against the Diocese of Lubbock by one of its ordained deacons. The deacon's name was included on a published list of those against whom credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor have been raised. The deacon contended that he was wrongly included on the list because the person accusing him was not a minor. The court said in part:

[T]he Diocese ... based the scope of its investigation on the canonical meaning of minor: “a person who habitually lacks the use of reason,” which includes “vulnerable adults.” Thus, a court would have to evaluate whether the Diocese had credible allegations against Guerrero under the canonical meaning of “minor.” This would necessarily entail a secular investigation into the Diocese’s understanding of the term “minor,” whether a court agrees that the woman he allegedly sexually abused qualifies as a “minor” under Canon Law, and whether the allegations it possesses were sufficiently “credible.” ...

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. Indeed, any investigation would necessarily put to question the internal decision making of a church judicatory body.

Justice Blacklock filed a concurring opinion. Justice Boyd filed a lengthy dissenting opinion. The briefs and oral arguments in the case are available online.

In a companion case in a per curiam order in Diocese of Lubbock v. Guerrero,(TX Sup. Ct., June 11, 2021), the court vacated and dismissed a trial court order in a suit invoking the Texas Citizens Participation Act.