Diocese Lawsuit Dismissed

By Chris Bristol
Yakima Herald-Republic
May 10, 2006

A lawsuit accusing the Catholic Diocese of Yakima of forcing an employee to quit has been thrown out by a judge as a constitutional violation of the separation of church and state.

Robert Fontana, formerly the diocesan director of evangelism, sued the church last year, claiming he was forced to quit for complaining about Bishop Carlos Sevilla's handing of allegations against a priest who was suspected of downloading photographs of nude boys off the Internet.

But Yakima County Superior Court Judge Susan Hahn, who heard arguments last week to dismiss the suit, ruled Tuesday that case law clearly spells out a so-called "ministerial exception" that prohibits the government and courts from interfering in matters of religious belief.

Fontana's lawyer argued his job duties were more properly defined as educational and administrative. Hahn disagreed, saying his job was to "perpetuate dogma and teachings of the church."

"He did not conduct Mass or any other of the sacraments. He did not hear confessions," Hahn wrote. "Nevertheless, the evidence is overwhelming that his duties and responsibilities should be considered 'ministerial.'"

Added the judge, "It is clear that a church's right to be unfettered by the state in its choice and control of ministers cannot abide state intervention where the heart of the issue depends on religious justification."

Fontana's lawyer, Gary Lofland, could not be reached Tuesday for comment. It remains unclear whether an appeal is being contemplated.

In his lawsuit, Fontana argued he was forced out after 25 years with the church because he was critical of how the diocese was applying a new national policy on sexual misconduct involving members of the clergy.

Fontana said he was reprimanded twice at work in 2004 for questioning the diocese's handling of the case of a priest who was investigated by the FBI and the county prosecutor's office on suspicion of possessing child pornography in September 2003. No criminal charges were filed.

Fontana said he was troubled when the priest wasn't placed on administrative leave while the investigation continued, as church policy required, but instead was allowed to resume religious duties in the diocese.

The priest returned to the diocese in spring 2004, serving at St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima. Later that fall, he was granted a sabbatical and left the diocese for the Midwest, where church officials say he is being monitored.

Fontana subsequently resigned from his position in the diocese.

He is now director for Catholic Life Ministries Northwest, a Yakima educational outreach organization. Last week he received his doctorate in ministry from the Graduate Theologian Foundation in South Bend, Ind.


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