Mabus Case Tests Shield from Suits
Church Cites Separation Issue
By Matt Volz
The Clarion-Ledger [Jackson MS]
Downloaded October 20, 2003
The Catholic church, which is trying to get the state Supreme Court to throw out a sex-abuse lawsuit against it, will have an unlikely case as a bellwether — the messy divorce of former governor Ray Mabus.
The two cases may be very different in subject matter, but both raise questions of the separation of church and state and the freedom of religion under the First Amendment.
At least seven civil lawsuits by alleged victims of sexual abuse seeking a total of $258 million have been filed against the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, according to the diocese. One suit was recently dismissed by a circuit judge because the statute of limitations had run out.
The trial in one case, a $48 million suit brought by Kenneth, Thomas and Francis Morrison, is on hold while the state Supreme Court considers a motion by the diocese to have the case dismissed.
The Morrisons say they were abused by the Rev. George Broussard when they were children in the 1970s. A trial in Hinds County Circuit court had been scheduled for Aug. 25.
The high court will consider arguments by the diocese that the separation of church and state makes the church autonomous and that certain church documents are privileged.
"For over a century, Mississippi courts have repeatedly held that the separation of church and state deprives a civil court of jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters," Roy Campbell, an attorney for the diocese, said in a March brief to the Hinds County Circuit Court.
Church autonomy is also a central theme in the case of Mabus, his ex-wife, Julie, and Jerry McBride, a former Episcopal priest. An appeal in that case should be heard by the state Supreme Court before the court takes action on the Catholic diocese's matter.
Julie Mabus sued McBride, St. James Church and the Episcopal Diocese because of a 1998 counseling session that Ray Mabus taped with McBride's knowledge, but without Julie Mabus'. The tape was later used against her in the divorce.
Julie Mabus argued that the diocese "failed to take appropriate steps to supervise Father McBride's interaction with parishioners and continued to retain his service at the risk and peril of their parishioners," according to the original complaint.
Charges of clandestine taping may seem far removed from allegations of pedophilia by a priest, but the defenses of both dioceses sound alike.
In the Catholic diocese's March brief: "(The Morrisons') allegations raise a fundamental issue of church-state relations: whether a civil court may assert state power over the manner by which a church selects, appoints, disciplines, and supervises its ministers."
And from Charles Ross, attorney for the Episcopalian diocese, in a 2001 hearing: "The First Amendment certainly bars courts from telling churches who should be a priest and who should not be a priest and whether a person's conduct is in accordance with what the church believes is appropriate."
Matt Steffey, a professor of law at Mississippi College who specializes in Constitutional law, said claims by the churches that its autonomy may be eaten away are overblown.
"It's an attempt for accountability, not a government takeover," Steffey said. "I would expect our Supreme Court to be sensitive to religious freedom, but these cases do not really strike at the heart of religious freedom."
A judge dismissed the Episcopalian diocese and St. James church from the Mabus suit, keeping as a defendant only McBride as an individual. Julie Mabus is appealing the dismissals to the Supreme Court.
Ross declined to comment on the appeal, saying just, "We believe that the circuit judge ruled properly with regard to the claims against the diocese."
Steve Carmody, an attorney for the Catholic diocese, said the diocese would not comment while the cases are pending against it.
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