Religious Autonomy Sought in Diocese of Lubbock v. Jesus Guerrero, Could Allow the Silencing of Child Abuse Survivors

By: Alee Corrales

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.     

A recent appellate case argued before the Texas Supreme Court could have startling implications on religious liberty and the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. In Diocese of Lubbock v. Jesus Guerrero, a former priest sued the Diocese of Lubbock for defamation when it included Guerrero’s name on the diocese’s list of clergy with credible allegations of sexually abusing a minor. However, no child ever accused Guerrero of abuse – rather, he was accused of sexual misconduct with an adult woman who had a history of emotional and mental troubles. Guerrero sued the Diocese of Lubbock for defamation because of concerns that people would view him as a child abuser because his name was on the list of credibly accused clergy. Guerrero won in trial court and intermediate appellate court.

The Diocese of Lubbock decision will set one of two potentially harmful precedents: one allows a religious institution to publicly defame an individual under the guise of religious autonomy; the other condones government oversight of religious institutions in self-governing according to its beliefs. This discussion focuses on the former. Indeed, the Diocese of Lubbock never specifically stated that children credibly accused these clergy of abuse; rather, the list stated that minors credibly accused these clergy of abuse. The diocese used the word minor per its definition in the Charter for Child and Youth Protection, which includes “children below the age of eighteen years,” but the definition also includes a person who “habitually lacks the use of reason.” Consequently, the Diocese of Lubbock included Guerrero on its list of credibly accused clergy because the allegations against him involved a woman the diocese considered vulnerable due to her mental condition.

The Diocese of Lubbock argues that courts do not have the jurisdiction to determine whether or not the statement is defamatory because the list of credibly accused clergy was generated and published as part of the diocese’s internal decision processes in accordance to religious law; and courts cannot meddle in such “religiously inherent questions” under the First Amendment precedent set in Westbrook v. Penley. However, child welfare advocates are concerned the religious autonomy sought by the Diocese of Lubbock could allow the Catholic Church to defame victims of child sexual abuse, making it even more difficult for abuse survivors to report their abuse. If defamatory statements are protected by a church’s religious autonomy to communicate according to its beliefs, then a church could simply create or select doctrine that appears legitimate and use it as a basis to publicly slander anyone they choose.

Of course, the Diocese of Lubbock argues it acted in a good faith to be transparent about clergy with credible accusations of child abuse – that it included Guerrero in accordance with the Catholic Church’s new procedures which seek to mitigate the scourge of child abuse in the Catholic Church. However, if the Catholic Church is to be trusted with the ability to publicly defame someone without legal recourse, one must consider the church’s prior actions regarding the child abuse scandal and the treatment of child abuse survivors.

As a whole, the Catholic Church has demonstrated troubling disregard for survivors of child sexual abuse by clergy. Examples of such disregard towards survivors include (but are not limited to): the first allegation made against Father Alphonse Boardway, (one of the ten clergy included in the Diocese of Lubbock’s list of credibly accused clergy) which occurred in 1985. The Diocese of Lubbock published Father Boardway’s name as credibly accused for the first time in January 2019 – over thirty years after the first allegation. The gap of time between credible allegations of child abuse by clergy and public disclosure of predatory clergy is common in these lists, because the Catholic Church began publishing names of credibly accused clergy for the first time in 2002.

Likewise, twenty-two state attorneys general have opened statewide investigations regarding clergy child abuse in the Catholic Church. After a two year grand jury investigation, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania reported a “systematic cover up [of sexual abuse by Catholic priests] spanning decades by senior church leaders in Pennsylvania and the Vatican,” amongst a myriad of other issues including insufficient reporting of credible allegations to law enforcement and the transfer of clergy with credible allegations to other dioceses. Similarly, it is common for dioceses to enter legal settlements with survivors of child abuse by clergy, which often includes the signing of a non-disclosure agreement regarding the abuse.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has demonstrated an inability to properly handle the crisis of child sexual abuse by clergy. With such an extensive list of failures regarding the child abuse scandal, now is not the time to grant the Catholic Church increased religious autonomy. While it is possible the Diocese of Lubbock would not exploit a potentially favorable decision in the case above, the Catholic Church has proven very resourceful in its methods of silencing survivors of clergy child abuse. The court has yet to resolve Diocese of Lubbock v. Guerrero, but the decision will undoubtedly make a Texas-sized impact.

Posted in: Legal Comentary

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