Texas diocese asks state Supreme Court to drop accused deacon’s defamation suit

The Cathedral of Christ the King in Lubbock, Texas. Credit: Diocese of Lubbock (CC BY-SA 4.0).

CNA Staff, Jan 8, 2021 / 12:13 am (CNA).- The Catholic Diocese of Lubbock, Texas has asked its state Supreme Court to dismiss a defamation lawsuit brought against the diocese by one of its former deacons, who claims he was wrongfully accused of child abuse.

The diocese holds that the suit should be dropped in order to protect the Church’s First Amendment rights to protect matters of theology, Church discipline, compliance with Church moral teaching and ecclesiastical governance from the jurisdiction of civil courts, according to Courthouse News Service.

In 2019, former deacon Jesus Guerrero, 76, filed a lawsuit against the diocese, after his name appeared on a public list of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. The list was published on the diocese’s website in January 2019 in the wake of widespread abuse investigations throughout the Church in the United States.

Guerrero filed a suit for libel and defamation, asking for $1 million in damages, saying that the published list wrongfully outed him as having been credibly accused of abuse of minors.

Guerrero was permanently dismissed from ministry as a deacon in 2008, after being accused of sexual misconduct with a woman in her 40s. Two witnesses claimed to have seen Guerrero leaving the same room as the woman while adjusting his clothes. Guerrero has denied ever abusing anyone, and has denied any wrongdoing with the woman. His attorney has previously said that the woman did not accuse Guerrero of abuse.

Guerrero has claimed that when the Diocese of Lubbock published their list, it did not clarify that these accusations could also be from “vulnerable adults.” He has claimed that the oversight, which lumped him together with accused child abusers, made him subject to undue suspicion and disdain from within the Church community and beyond.

The lawsuit said that before Guerrero’s name appeared on the list, he “had never been accused of sexual abuse and/or misconduct against a minor, nor had he ever been investigated for any sexual abuse and/or misconduct against a minor.”

In March 2019, Pope Francis changed canon law regarding cases of abuse, to include a broad definition of “vulnerable adults,” including anyone “in an infirm state, of physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal freedom, that in fact, even occasionally, limits their capacity to intend or to want or in any way to resist the offense.”

Whether the woman in Guerrero’s case qualifies as a “vulnerable adult” is a point of contention in the case. The diocese has claimed that she is a person who “habitually lacks the use of reason.” However, Guerrero’s attorney Nick Olguin has said in a previous court briefing that the woman lives independently and has never been found to be incompetent.

In April 2019, the Diocese of Lubbock published a revised list of accused clergy, clarifying that Guerrero had not been found to be credibly accused of abusing anyone under the age of 18, but that he had been credibly accused by a vulnerable adult.

In December 2019 Chief Justice Brian Quinn of the Texas Court of Appeals declined to overturn a lower court’s ruling against the diocese. Quinn said that the publishing of the list online, as well as its discussion in the media, meant that the case extended beyond the bounds of Church governance.

On Wednesday, the diocese’s representative, William Haun, with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argued to the Texas Supreme Court that religious autonomy should not be “stripped from religious organizations simply because they speak in public on matters affecting their religious exercise and moral witness.”

He added that the list of accused clergy was published on the diocesan website because that is one way the diocese regularly communicates with Catholics within its jurisdiction, Courthouse News Service reported.

Texas Assistant Attorney General Beth Klusmann argued in support of Guerrero, and said that sometimes people may need recourse to civil courts in order to clear their names if they have been wrongfully accused by the Church, Courthouse News Service reported.

The Texas Supreme Court did not say when a ruling could be expected.

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