Once completely shrouded behind church tradition if not actual walls, the results of church investigations into their own clergy are now routinely posted on the internet. Some of the investigations must be understood in the context of Canon Law and not just the language used in the disclosures on the internet.
The case of In Re Diocese of Lubbock, Slip Op. (Tex. 2021) reviewed the posting of lists of clergy the church alleged from its own internal investigation were credibly accused of sexual abuse with a “minor.” However, in the denomination in question, Canon Law held the word “minor” included vulnerable adults, too. The Plaintiff alleged he was listed even though the sexual misconduct of which he was accused did not involve a person underage but rather an allegedly “vulnerable adult,” in this instance mentally ill or incapacitated. The Plaintiff complained he was defamed by the failure to make this distinction clear. Further, the Plaintiff claimed posting the list on the internet was a publication that took the alleged defamation outside of the protection of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine of the First Amendment. The Texas Supreme Court explicitly held that any church investigation into clergy was inherently and necessarily ecclesiastical and that publication on the internet did not obviate the doctrine. The Court held that Canon Law terminology, the conduct and publication of the investigation under commands from the church hierarchy, and plaintiff’s status as clergy made the matter inextricable from ecclesiastical inquires that could not be made by a Court. The trial court was ordered to dismiss the case.
The Court, and no court has done so, did not require that due process be provided to the accused including the right to be heard by church leadership. Likewise, the quality of the investigation, or proof thereof, was not required. The larger denominations have employed retired law enforcement officers and experienced lawyers to conduct and review the internal investigations. The high-risk action was publishing the results. While no churches would accept that risk in prior generations, churches in this generation believe they simply have no choice but to achieve transparency.