The Texas Supreme Court will hear the Diocese of Lubbock’s appeal of a legal decision allowing a former deacon to sue the diocese for defamation for including his name on a list of clergy credibly accused of sex abuse.
“We are committed to transparency for the trust and safety of the members of our parishes,” Bishop Robert Coerver of Lubbock said June 8. “At a time when many religious messages are being shared digitally, courts must protect churches’ ability to communicate effectively with their members.”
“Churches should not be punished for doing the right thing,” Montse Alvarado, vice president and executive director at the legal group Becket, said June 8. “Clergy hold a unique position of trust within their communities, and churches should be free to notify members and other affected individuals when clergy violate that trust. That is true even when the warning goes beyond the four walls of the church building.”
Lower courts have sided with the deacon’s lawsuit. Because local media broadcast the list beyond the confines of the Church, the diocese had no legal defense, the courts said.
Legal briefs filed by Becket on behalf of the diocese argue that lower courts’ decisions violate the principle that civil courts may not adjudicate matters of theology, Church discipline, ecclesiastical government, and compliance with Church moral teaching. The former deacon has the right to restore his reputation under the law of the Church, said the briefs.
The former deacon, Jesus Guerrero, 76, has filed a lawsuit that rejected claims he had ever been accused of sex abuse or misconduct. The lawsuit described him as “a faithful servant of God in the Catholic Church his entire life.”
The Diocese of Lubbock released its list Jan. 31, 2019 after the list was compiled by a retired police officer and an attorney. The diocese said Guerrero had been credibly accused of “sexual abuse of a minor.” It reported that he had been permanently removed from ministry in 2008.
The plaintiff charged that the diocese committed libel and defamation against him. His lawsuit said his reputation was destroyed and he has become the object of contempt and ridicule.
The plaintiff’s brief said he suffered severe anxiety and stress after the diocese listed him as credibly accused of abuse. This stress and anxiety in part led to a stroke, the lawsuit charged. The lawsuit seeks $1 million in damages.
In December 2019 Chief Justice Brian Quinn of the Texas Court of Appeals declined to overturn a lower court’s ruling against the diocese, United Press International reports. Quinn said that while matters of Church discipline are ecclesiastical and outside the jurisdiction of civil courts, the diocese “placed the controversy in the realm of Caesar or the secular world by opting to leave the confines of the church.”
“What we have before us is not an incidental public disclosure of internal church disciplinary matter,” said the judge, who noted the diocese published the list on a public website, issued a news release about the list, and gave media interviews about the list.
According to Quinn, statements from the diocese acknowledge that the issue goes beyond the Church, such as statements like “our dioceses are serious about ending the cycle of abuse in the church and in society at large.”
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.”
His accuser was in her 40s and said Guerrero did not abuse her, his attorney Nick Olguin said, according to United Press International. Two witnesses claimed to have seen Guerrero leaving the same room as the woman while adjusting his clothes. Guerrero denies ever abusing anyone.
After the lawsuit was filed, the Lubbock diocese on April 10, 2019 said the alleged accuser is a person who “habitually lacks the use of reason” and is considered equivalent to a minor under canon law. It said the diocese has “no information of a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor below the age of eighteen (18) by Jesus Guerrero.”
“The Diocese of Lubbock has concluded there is a credible allegation against Jesus Guerrero of sexual abuse of a person who habitually lacks the use of reason. The Diocese of Lubbock regrets any misunderstanding that may have arisen from the Jan. 31 posting.”
Olguin questioned whether the woman is a vulnerable adult. In a brief, he said she lives independently and has never been found incompetent, UPI reports. The plaintiff’s brief cited a Catholic spokesperson who in a television interview said a credible allegation means the accused admits to it, the accused is found guilty in court, or someone who witnessed abuse testified about it. Olguin said none of these apply.
However, in the material accompanying the Lubbock diocese’s January 2019 list, the diocese said a name “only appears on the list if the diocese possesses in its files evidence of a credible allegation.” The diocese said its standard of a credible allegation means that “after review of reasonably available, relevant information in consultation with the Diocesan Review Board or other professionals, there is reason to believe is true.”
With the diocese’s clarification, Olguin argued, “the church continued its assault on Jesus by claiming that he has sexually abused a vulnerable adult without any credible evidence whatsoever.” He said the clarification did not get as much attention as the original list.
In comments to CNA, Olguin said that from the beginning Guerrero wanted an apology.
“We are not saying that the Church has no right to warn it’s members, we are saying that when you go outside the confines of your church and seek out the secular media – you better be right or you will be accountable,” the attorney said.
He said the right thing to do is “to admit that a mistake was made and apologize.”
According to Olguin, “the Diocese of Lubbock told me that they would not apologize and threatened to disparage his name even more if we filed a suit.”
“The lawyers for the Diocese of Lubbock, Becket law group, want to cloud the issue and state that the issue is the ‘Church’s ability to warn members.’ That is simply not true,” the attorney continued. “Deacon Guerrero does not have a problem with the Church warning members of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse against a minor – the issue for Deacon Guerrero was that it was not true and the Diocese of Lubbock knew that he had never been accused of sexual abuse against a minor and put his name on the list anyway.”
“Further, Deacon Guerrero has an issue with the Church accusing him of something (they knew was untrue) and then trying to hide behind the pulpit,” Olguin said.
“The issue here is that the Diocese of Lubbock gave interviews to the local media, issued a press release saying ‘list of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse against a minor’ is coming soon, when the list came out, the Church sought the secular media to disseminate their list and they put Deacon Guerrero’s name on the list without any clarification of what they meant by ‘minor’,” he added.
“The church says this is what we meant by ‘minor’ – when really there was not ever a credible allegation of sexual abuse by Deacon Guerrero to begin with,” said the attorney.
CNA sought comment from Becket but did not receive a response by deadline.
The legal group said briefs in support of the diocese have come from Jewish and Protestant leaders, state legislators, and legal scholars.
Texas legislators, and prominent legal scholars, filed briefs supporting the diocese.
“They ask the Court to uphold the right of all religious groups to demonstrate transparency on issues arising from clergy discipline,” Becket said.
The diocese said Guerrero was assigned to Our Lady of Grace parish in Lubbock from 1997 to 2003, suspended for unstated reasons in 2003, then assigned to San Ramon parish in Woodrow from 2006 to 2007. He was permanently removed from ministry the next year.
The Lubbock diocese covers 25 counties in west Texas, with 63 parishes serving more than 136,000 Catholics, the diocese website says.
The Lubbock case is not the only lawsuit against a Catholic diocese in Texas.
As of January, three priests named as credibly accused of sexual abuse by the Diocese of Corpus Christi had filed defamation lawsuits against their diocese. A fourth priest’s lawsuit was dismissed, the Caller Times reports.