In the era of transparency, churches and denominations are publicly revealing sexual misconduct claims that in prior generations would not have been made public. Youthful indiscretions of non-clergy lay members in prior generations would not have been considered a matter of church transparency. That is no longer the case. Those churches or denominations that have been forced into bankruptcy law protection by similar claims may publicly reveal sexual misconduct claims. The question may then arise, for the non-clergy lay person that was a youth leader, can they get their name off such a public disclosure.
In the bankruptcy of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Opinion (Bankr. D. NM 2021), the federal bankruptcy court in New Mexico had to decide whether to lift the bankruptcy stay in order to permit the state court Plaintiff’s defamation case to proceed. The state court Plaintiff alleged he was defamed by being listed by the church in its public disclosure regarding sexual misconduct of “Priests, Deacons, and Religious Accused of Sexual Abuse of Children.” The victim’s complaint was that the Plaintiff, a 19-year-old youth leader in 1970 was accused by the then 17-year-old victim of rape and molestation in a complaint filed in 1995 by the now deceased victim. The Plaintiff alleged the sexual encounter was consensual. The church listed the then 19-year-old Plaintiff as a “Benedictine brother” but Plaintiff denied he was ever such, nor was he ever a church employee. Plaintiff attended seminary for a couple of years but was never ordained in any capacity. Plaintiff served as a “lay minister” for 39 years (but the Court’s understanding of the role of a “lay minister” in the church in question was not explained). After being listed, Plaintiff was no longer allowed by the church to serve in any capacity. Plaintiff wrote a $5,000 check in 1997 and gave it to his lawyer but could not say how the money was used. However, the victim’s lawsuit was settled, apparently by the church and its insurer, and the Court did not know whether part of the money came from Plaintiff. The federal bankruptcy court refused to lift the stay because Plaintiff could not disprove that the victim made a complaint in 1995. The Court held that the settlement precluded any finding the allegations were untrue. The Court held the Plaintiff should have “appealed the decision through the church’s appellate channels.” The Court cited no church authority or governing document regarding the availability of such a process.
The facts in the reported case are so odd that extrapolating principles from the case involve a degree of risk. Also, the Court’s “findings” seemed to involve several inferential leaps. In any event, publicly disclosing sexual misconduct allegations regarding a non-clergy, non-employee, 19-year-old seems to be risky and probably should not be done without an excruciatingly careful review of the facts and claims. The first claim that could have been more carefully examined was whether in New Mexico in 1970 a 19-year-old could be a “Benedictine brother.”