Priest Sues Bishop and Diocese for Defamation

Courts generally refuse to interfere with churches’ decisions regarding a minister’s status.

Church Law and Tax 1997-07-01

Libel and Slander

Key point. Statements made by church officials regarding a ministers status are an internal church concern that generally are free from civil liability, and this includes claims that the statements were defamatory.

A Texas court ruled that a bishop and diocese could not be liable on the basis of defamation for statements made about a priests status within the church. A priest had a history of conflict with his diocese culminating in his association with a dissident Catholic sect. A parishioner asked the priests bishop about the priests standing in the Catholic Church, and was informed that “he is not in good standing with his diocese and does not enjoy the [authority] to function as a priest in [this] or any other diocese.” The bishop advised another person that the priest was excommunicated, and not in good standing, and “says mass to a small number of people, including elderly women who have been deceived by him.” The bishop later sent a memorandum to “all pastors” advising them to refrain from advertising or encouraging a mass being offered by the priest who was described as an “excommunicated priest who has left the Catholic Church.” The priest sued the bishop and diocese, claiming that these communications were defamatory. A state appeals court disagreed. The court observed that the first amendment “forbids the government from interfering with the right of hierarchical religious bodies to establish their own internal rules and regulations.” As a result the civil courts cannot “intrude into the churchs governance or religious or ecclesiastical matters, such as theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of members to standards of morality.” Furthermore, the court noted:

[C]ourts will not attempt to right wrongs related to the hiring, firing, discipline or administration of clergy. Although such wrongs may exist and may be severe, and although the administration of the church may be inadequate to provide a remedy, the preservation of the free exercise of religion is deemed so important a principle it overshadows the inequities which may result from its liberal application.

The court conceded that churches “exist and function within the civil community” and as a result they are “as amenable as other social entities to rules governing property rights, torts, and criminal conduct.” The difficulty “comes in determining whether a particular dispute is ecclesiastical or simply a civil law controversy in which church officials happen to be involved.” The priest insisted that the dispute in this case was not ecclesiastical. Rather, it involved a question whose resolution did not involve ecclesiastical considerations-whether or not he had been excommunicated. The court disagreed:

[The priests] claims arise from his divestiture of priestly authority; thus, his [legal] claims are inseparable from the privileged aura of ecclesiastical exemption. [The bishops] administrative duties include informing members of the Catholic Church of the status of its clergy. We believe that statements made by a bishop in carrying out his administrative duties concerning an excommunication made before, during or after an excommunication, are all part of an ecclesiastical transaction-the divestiture of priestly authority.

The court acknowledged that “there may be circumstances where a bishop or other church authority makes statements which overstep the bounds of [his or her] administrative duties.” For example, “when statements are made by a church authority which are clearly intended to defame or inflict emotional distress, the authority has overstepped the bounds of his administrative duties and the statements may fall outside ecclesiastical protection.” This was not true in this case, however, since the bishops statements all related to the priests standing in the Catholic Church.

Application. This case illustrates the well—established rule that the civil courts will not interfere with decisions made by churches or denominational agencies concerning the status of ministers. As another court has observed: “However a suit may be labeled, once a court is called upon to probe into a religious body’s selection and retention of clergymen, the first amendment [guaranty of religious freedom] is implicated …. The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern.” Tran v. Fiorenza, 934 S.W.2d 740 (Tex. App. 1996). [ Termination, Defamation, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]

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