Priest versus church: case should be tried, public deserves answers

Sun Sentinel

June 28, 2018

By the time a nasty quarrel reaches the Florida Supreme Court, it’s usually about more than just the people involved. If it doesn’t have a broader implication for the public or for the law, the court is not likely to want to hear it. But if there is a significant public policy question, the court serves the people best when it interprets its jurisdiction liberally and agrees to take the case.

The case of Father John Gallagher vs. the Diocese of Palm Beach, Inc., meets the public interest test. The priest is trying to sue the diocese for defamation, alleging that it maligned him after he accused it of trying to cover up the misconduct of another priest who showed child pornography to a teenager. The diocese claims that the lawsuit is really about Gallagher’s pique at not being promoted and that it is exempt from such litigation under what’s known as the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

After Palm Beach Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser refused to dismiss the suit, the Diocese won an order from the Fourth District Court of Appeal last month that forbade the trial court from trying the case. It’s that decision that Gallagher’s lawyers are asking the Florida Supreme Court to reverse. They make a good argument.

Here’s the public policy question at the heart of it: At what point is a religious institution immune from secular authority? It’s the same issue that vexed King Henry II of England in his 12th century feud with Archbishop Thomas Becket and led to the cleric’s assassination by four knights.

These days, the courts work it out.

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