Diocese of Lubbock v. Jesus Guerrero
Roman Catholic dioceses around the world have elected to publish lists of clergy members credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor in order to be more transparent about abuse within the Church. The Diocese of Lubbock, Texas published its list in January 2019 to rebuild trust and promote healing among Catholics within the Diocese. A former deacon in the Diocese, Jesus Guerrero, sued the Diocese after he was included on the list. He claims that his inclusion on the list is defamatory because his accuser was over 18 years old at the time of the allegations. The Diocese clarified that it was operating under the Catholic Church’s definition of “minor,” which includes individuals over the age of 18 who lack the mental faculties of an adult. In this case, Guerrero asks the government to weigh in on the Diocese’s standards of morality and its internal decisions about how best to enforce them against clergy. This violates the church autonomy guaranteed by the First Amendment.
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Combatting the sexual abuse crisis
An ongoing sexual abuse crisis has plagued the Roman Catholic Church worldwide for decades. In January 2019, consistent with the admonitions of Pope Francis and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, dioceses across the country, including all 15 Texas dioceses, published lists of clergy members credibly accused of abusing a minor. The lists are part of an effort throughout the Church to be more open and transparent about past abuse and take proactive steps to protect children and young people.
In order to compile the list, the Diocese of Lubbock hired a retired police officer and a local attorney to review the files of all bishops, priests, and deacons who have served in the Diocese. Included on the list are all bishops, priests, and deacons who have been credibly accused since the Diocese of Lubbock was created in 1983.
Punished for transparency
Among the names published by the Diocese of Lubbock was former Deacon Jesus Guerrero, who was suspended in 2003 and permanently expelled from the diaconate in 2007 due to alleged sexual misconduct with a woman who has a history of mental and emotional issues.
Following the list’s publication, Guerrero demanded that his name be removed, claiming that he was wrongly listed because his accuser was not a minor at the time of the alleged misconduct. The Diocese responded by issuing a clarification, explaining that under Canon Law—the centuries-old body of law of the Catholic Church which clergy are bound to follow—any person over the age of 18 who lacks the mental faculties of an adult (non sui compos) is considered a minor. On March 22, 2019, Guerrero sued, arguing that he had been slandered and defamed by the Diocese.
Churches must be able to self-govern free from government interference
Guerrero is now asking the court to evaluate the Catholic Church’s worldwide doctrinal definition of a minor and, in doing so, the Church’s internal governing decisions and moral understandings. At the Texas Court of Appeals, Becket filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops—all 22 bishops in the State of Texas—arguing that the government cannot tell churches how they should resolve a church controversy and it cannot evaluate their standards of morality. Allowing courts to decide religious questions would open a Pandora’s box of lawsuits over internal church affairs, obliterating the separation of church and state.
The Seventh Court of Appeals of Texas heard oral argument in this case on October 2, 2019 at Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock. Becket represented the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, along with Steven Levatino of Levatino Pace LLP in Austin.
On December 6, 2019, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Diocese of Lubbock’s appeal. Becket is now representing the Diocese of Lubbock in petitioning for review before the Supreme Court of Texas. If left to stand, the appellate court’s decision imposes troubling limitations on a church’s engagement with its members and the broader public, and could chill efforts at transparency on matters of sexual abuse.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Religious communities—Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to autonomy and self-governance.