Diocese of Lubbock v. Jesus Guerrero
In response to calls from Pope Francis for greater transparency, Roman Catholic dioceses around the world have published lists of clergy credibly accused of sexually abusing a “minor,” which is defined by Catholic canon law to include adults lacking full mental faculties. The Diocese of Lubbock, along with all other dioceses in Texas, published its list in January 2019. A former deacon in the diocese, Jesus Guerrero, sued the diocese after he was included on the list. He claims that his inclusion is defamatory, because his accuser was over 18 at the time of the allegations. The diocese clarified that it was operating under the Catholic Church’s religious definition of “minor,” which includes individuals over the age of 18 who lack the mental faculties of an adult. Guerrero’s claims ask the court to second-guess the diocese’s standards of morality and its internal decisions about the discipline of clergy. This violates the religious autonomy the First Amendment guarantees to religious organizations.
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Promoting healing and protecting the vulnerable
This case is based on the January 2019 decision of Texas Catholic bishops to compile and release lists of clergy that, based on Catholic Church law and in accordance with internal church investigations, were credibly accused of sexually abusing “minors” as defined by Catholic law. The lists are part of an ongoing effort throughout the Church to speak with Catholics in a transparent manner about past sexual abuse, promote healing within the Catholic Church, and protect the vulnerable.
Punished for transparency
Among the names published by the Diocese of Lubbock was that of Deacon Jesus Guerrero, who was suspended in 2003 and permanently suspended from the diaconate in 2007 due to alleged sexual misconduct with a woman who has a history of mental and emotional issues.
Deacon Guerrero threatened to sue the Diocese of Lubbock for including him on the list. He claims that his inclusion is defamatory, because the person he is accused of abusing was not under 18 years of age at the time of the alleged misconduct. The diocese explained 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. Nevertheless, on March 22, 2019, Guerrero brought a million-dollar defamation lawsuit against the diocese.
Churches must be able to self-govern free from government interference
To prevail, Guerrero’s claims require that a civil court adjudicate whether the Catholic Church’s religious understanding of “minor” is reasonable, and, as applied to his conduct, true. 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 to resolve church controversies and cannot evaluate church 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.
On December 6, 2019, Texas’s 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.
Becket filed its two Supreme Court petitions on February 20, 2020. They are supported by a diverse array of religious denominations, high-profile law professors, and 34 members of the Texas legislature—all of whom filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the diocese. 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. On June 5, 2020, the Supreme Court of Texas granted review in Diocese of Lubbock v. Guerrero.
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.