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  A Little Too Personal

By Peter Steinfels
New York Times
July 19, 2003

Can you sue the person in the pulpit for preaching hellfire at least if it gets personal?

That's only one of the questions raised by an unusual lawsuit filed last month against a priest in northern New Mexico and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the family of Ben Martinez, charged that at the funeral for Mr. Martinez, the parish priest declared that the deceased, an 80-year-old former town councilor in Chama, N.M., had been a lukewarm Catholic who had been living in sin and was going to hell.

Besides accusing the priest of other abusive statements and demeaning behavior, the suit detailed psychological pain, physical afflictions, anxiety, depression and humiliation allegedly suffered by Mr. Martinez's family in the months after the funeral, which occurred over a year ago and had been attended by more than 150 relatives and townspeople.

None of this, it should be emphasized, has been proved or even heard in court. The priest, the Rev. Scott Mansfield, has denied the accusations, Celine Baca Radigan, director of communications for the Santa Fe Archdiocese, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Archdiocesan lawyers answered the complaint with a sweeping denial that "Father Mansfield attacked Ben Martinez and his family" or that "his words and/or conduct fell outside the liturgical norms of the Roman Catholic Church," Ms. Radigan said.

Ms. Radigan also denied the complaint's accusation that the archdiocese had somehow "ratified and approved" the alleged conduct.

Father Mansfield, who now serves another parish after what the archdiocese said was a routine reassignment, did not respond to a message left there.

This might be a simple dispute over defamation. Preaching at a religious service is not a license to say anything about anyone. But if hard words are a recognized part of a religious doctrine to which someone has voluntarily subscribed, the matter becomes more complicated.

Catholic teaching affirms the existence of hell as a place of eternal punishment and separation from God but has never stated that any particular individuals are damned or that humans could know that.

Father Mansfield, 41, has been ordained only three years, after a career as a disc jockey. In an inaugural sermon to his present parish, he presented himself as a no-nonsense priest. He recited the Oath of Fidelity to all church teachings that he took at ordination and emphasized the word "all."

"That tells you right where I stand," he said.

In speaking to young people about not letting anything get in the way of their religious obligations, including fascination with popular culture or celebrity musicians, Father Mansfield was demanding, but he was also clearly the former disc jockey, alluding to his own past failings.

Father Mansfield has already become the archdiocese's official for promoting vocations to the priesthood.

A lawyer representing the archdiocese and Father Mansfield has moved to shift the case from state to federal court on the grounds that it raises First Amendment questions about freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Whatever is eventually decided about what Father Mansfield did or did not do at Mr. Martinez's funeral, the suit poses the further issue of what legal responsibility the archdiocese has for his actions. Just how much liability do high-level religious officials have for the conduct of the clergy they supervise?

Although that question has been spotlighted by the Catholic sexual abuse scandals, it has implications for all but the most congregational religious bodies.

It is a fact of life that anyone feeling seriously injured by an individual member of the clergy is not likely to get much compensation without showing that some higher level of the religious organization, with deeper pockets, was also at fault.

The New Mexico suit, for example, said the Santa Fe Archdiocese was responsible for the alleged conduct of the funeral because, after the fact, the church approved the removal from the parish of a man in training to become a deacon who was reported to have clashed with the priest about what had been said and done that day.

Ms. Radigan responded for the archdiocese that the man had been dropped from the program for deacon "on a totally unrelated issue."

The complaint also accused the archdiocese of approving a newsletter circulating in the parish that threatened excommunication against anyone protesting the funeral. The newsletter, written by Father Mansfield's successor as pastor, certainly appeared to confirm that Father Mansfield had disturbed the parish with some sort of stern sermon about laxness in attending church.

Ms. Radigan said the archdiocese had not endorsed anything circulated locally.

Finally, the complaint charged a general failure "to adequately instruct, supervise and discipline defendant Father Scott Mansfield in the manner that he conducted himself."

Kathleen Kentish Lucero, the lawyer for the Martinez family, said yesterday that archdiocesan approval was demonstrated by the fact that Father Mansfield had been given a larger parish and his post as vocations director.

If this case makes it to trial, what is decided about this level of religious officials' responsibility will be highly significant. What should be done, in a litigious society, about accusations of gross pastoral insensitivity? Is the answer to be found in the courtroom?

One can sympathize with Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe. Appointed to lead the Catholic Church there a decade ago, he has been hailed for dealing with a backlog of cases of priestly sexual abuse. For his reward, he was given the additional task last month of overseeing the Diocese of Phoenix, where Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien was entangled in similar cases and then had to resign after being charged with leaving the scene of a fatal auto accident.

Archbishop Sheehan needs the new lawsuit about as much as Christians in the Roman amphitheaters needed a few more hungry lions. But like it or not, some important principles may be at stake.

 
 

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