The Catholic Diocese of Lubbock successfully argued that a former deacon has no standing to bring a defamation case over the publication of a list of accused sexual abusers.
AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court on Friday rejected a million-dollar libel lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock, finding in favor of religious organizations’ First Amendment rights.
Former Deacon Jesus Guerrero sued the diocese for defamation in 2019 after it published his name on a list of members of the church who were credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.
After hearing arguments in the case in January, the state high court ruled Friday that Guerrero lacked jurisdiction to bring the case.
“Religious groups have a First Amendment right to decide for themselves—free from court interference—matters of ecclesiastical governance as well as faith and doctrine,” Justice John P. Devine wrote for the court.
Guerrero’s time with the church as a deacon goes back to 1997. In 2003, he was suspended from his duties after accusations of sexual misconduct involving Guerrero and a woman in her 40s with a “history of mental and emotional disorders,” according to the ruling.
Three years later, Guerrero requested to be reinstated as a deacon and resume his prior responsibilities. The diocese granted his request, until 2008 when new allegations from the same woman led the church to permanently prohibit Guerrero from acting as a deacon.
In 2019, all 15 of Texas’ Catholic dioceses published on their websites the names of clergy members who faced credible accusations of sexual abuse of a minor. This came after widespread public criticism that the Catholic Church worked to cover up incidents of sexual abuse and protect those accused of wrongdoing. The Texas dioceses aimed to increase transparency to regain the public’s trust in the church.
In a brief to the Texas Supreme Court, Guerrero said he was “shocked, confused, hurt and I knew that it wasn’t true” when the Lubbock diocese’s list was released in January 2019 and his name was on it.
Guerrero claims the Lubbock diocese and its officials stated in a press release and media interviews about the list that the outing of predatory clergy was part of the church’s work to ensure children are safe, but did not clarify that under canon law the word minor includes “vulnerable” adults.
He demanded his name be taken off of the list, but the diocese refused. In a letter, it said the allegations against him were deemed credible by a diocesan review board.
Guerrero sued for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, seeking more than $1 million damages. The diocese then released a revised list clarifying that Guerrero’s accusations were never against a minor under the age of 18.
Citing the Texas Citizens Participation Act, or TCPA, an anti-SLAPP statute, the diocese filed a motion to dismiss the suit, asserting that the case threatens its right to free speech. Additionally, the diocese argued the trial court had no standing to hear the dispute since it is religious in nature.
The trial court denied both of the diocese’s motions and the court of appeals affirmed, finding the case is not solely religious in nature because the list was published publicly and the diocese interacted with the media. That ruling prompted the appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
In directing the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit, the state high court found that Guerrero’s suit is “inextricably intertwined” with the diocese’s decision to investigate its own clergy.
“Investigations that relate to the character and conduct of church leaders are inherently ecclesiastical,” Devine wrote for the court. “Although tort law imposes a duty not to defame or intentionally inflict emotional distress upon others, a civil suit that is inextricably intertwined with a church’s directive to investigate its clergy cannot proceed in the courts.”
Devine said allowing judicial review of a clergy investigation would be an inappropriate interference in the church’s “ability to regulate the character and conduct of its leaders.”
Guerrero’s attorney Nick Olguin expressed disappointment in the ruling.
“I think that today’s ruling showed that the state of Texas is willing to give a church not just autonomy, but immunity for what they do and say in the public arena,” he said.
Olguin fears that the ruling could lead to a “slippery slope” where a church could make any claims or spread mistruths under the guise of autonomy and be immune from being sued.
“In this case, the church knew that they had no evidence that Jesus Guerrero sexually abused anyone and he is forever labeled a sexual abuser of children,” Olguin said. “I was taught right is right and wrong is wrong – you can’t lie about a person, without consequence. That same standard, after today’s ruling, does not hold true if you are a church.”
When asked whether he plans to appeal, Olguin said, “We are exploring all avenues…including trying to get it to the Supreme Court.”
As the case worked its way through the courts, the Lubbock diocese garnered support from religious groups across the state. The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and 34 Texas lawmakers all signed onto a brief supporting the diocese. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, filed a separate amicus brief in support.
Among the 15 dioceses in Texas, 332 clergy members have been accused of child sexual abuse from 1950 to 2020, according to an investigation by Austin NBC affiliate KXAN.