The Roman Catholic Church set off on a bold path when it decided to publicly list by name the persons it determined where “credibly” accused of sexual misconduct while holding church office. Such public accusations needed to be right and true in order to avoid defamation claims by alleged perpetrators. Those lawsuits have started.
In the case of In Re Diocese of Lubbock, Slip Op. (Tex. Civ. App. 7th, 2019), the trial court refused to dismiss the defamation claim by a former deacon listed publicly by the diocese as a sex offender. However, while lumped in with others accused of sexual misconduct with children, the claim against the former deacon was sexual misconduct with an adult. The appellate court, considering an extra-ordinary writ challenging the action of the trial court, affirmed the trial court. The appellate court at length recited that internal accusation by a church of a member in accord with the church disciplinary religious doctrine could not be considered by a court because it was shielded by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. But, once the accusation was made public by the church, and not merely leaked inadvertently or without authorization, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine no longer applied. The case was remanded for further proceedings.
It would be interesting to know if denominations or churches that have decided to use publicly disclosed lists of “credibly accused” sexual offenders did so calculating the potential for additional claims. If so, the risk analysis may have led to them to believe the risk was less than the cost of lack of transparency. Truth is a defense in a defamation case but “credibly accused” may or may not be enough. Most denominations and churches issuing such lists have done so only after qualified counsel consumed many hours of billable time to assess the claims. The reported case may put that to the test.