Corpus Christi priests accused of credible abuse file appeal in defamation case
By Alexandria Rodriguez
January 28, 2020
|Bishop Michael Mulvey answers questions from the media after Diocese of Corpus Christi released a list of names of priests accused of sexual abuse of minors on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. |
|Msgr. Michael Heras resigned as pastor of St. Peter Prince of the Apostle's Parish in Corpus Christi after allegations of inappropriate conduct.|
|Rev. John Feminelli was accused of attempting to seduce a young boy in the 1980s. He retired from the diocese in 2007. |
A lawyer is arguing retired Corpus Christi priests were wrongly included in a list of clergy "credibly accused of sexual abuse," especially when one was exonerated multiple times.
In an Appellants' brief submitted Monday to the Thirteenth Court of Appeals, attorney Andrew M. Greenwell argues retired priests Michael Heras and John Feminelli were included in a Diocese of Corpus Christi list of priests "credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors."
The list, which was also released in every Texas Catholic diocese, was made public in January 2019.
The Diocese of Corpus Christi includes Aransas, Bee, Brooks, Duval, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, Live Oak, Nueces, Refugio, San Patricio counties and some of McCullen County.
Feminelli and Heras have repeatedly denied they have sexually abused minors, the document states.
Both priests filed defamation lawsuits against Bishop Michael Mulvey and the Diocese of Corpus Christi after the list was released. The lawsuits were consolidated and were later dismissed by Texas District Judge David Stith in August. Greenwell later filed a notice to appeal on priests' behalf.
In a deposition, Mulvey said his definition of sexual abuse of a minor included contact, non-criminal inappropriate behavior, such as grooming a minor for possible purposes of abuse, boundary violations and imprudent actions, the document states.
In the appellant's brief, Greenwell argues the trial court ruled erred when it ruled in favor of Mulvey, whose lawyers argued the Ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
Mulvey and the Diocese claimed the list of priests was a document for internal church affairs, Greenwell said. That claim protects the church from lawsuits under the doctrine.
Greenwell argues Mulvey, through his communications staff, sent out news releases to media and set up interviews ahead of the list being made public.
A similar incident occurred in Lubbock, when a deacon sued the Diocese of Lubbock for including his name on the list. The Diocese of Lubbock filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, which were denied. The Diocese then filed a motion to an appellate court in Amarillo. That motion was to review the motion to dismiss. That was also denied by Seventh Court of appeals, documents show.
In the appellant brief, Greenwell asks the Thirtheeth Court of Appeals to follow the lead of the court in Amarillo.
Heras was relieved of his ministry by Mulvey in June 2014. Feminelli retired from ministry in April 2007, but still celebrated Mass often, the document states.
Greenwell argues inclusion of Feminelli and Heras' names in the list is "destructive" to their character.
"The defamation involves the assertion that there have been credible accusations against Heras and Feminelli that they sexually abused a minor," the document reads. "This is nothing short of saying that there are credible accusations against Heras and Feminelli that they committed a crime under the laws of the State of Texas."
Greenwell also says in the document that Feminelli was exonerated of any wrongdoing by four bishops, including Mulvey.
Mulvey said the list was meant to protect children from sexual abuse and was needed for greater accountability and transparency, the document states. Though Greenwell called the list a "public relations stunt."
"Finally, the issue of child molestation — and accusing someone of such a heinous offense — has nothing to do with religious doctrine, theology, or internal church discipline, which is what the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is intended to protect," the document reads.
Heras and Feminelli are two of four priests included in the list that have filed lawsuits against the diocese.
Flover Antonio Osorio Herrera and Jesus Garcia Hernando have also filed lawsuits. Herrera's lawsuit was dismissed in September 2019, and Hernando's lawsuit is pending, Nueces County court records show.