Court Rejects Priest's Appeal of Lawsuit against Maher

Associated Press, carried in Los Angeles Times [San Francisco]
August 11, 1989

The state Supreme Court refused Thursday to allow a damages suit against Bishop Leo T. Maher of San Diego by a priest who said he lost his job, was sent into electroshock treatment and was blacklisted in the church after a dispute with the bishop.

Only Justice Marcus Kaufman voted to grant a hearing to the priest, Michael Higgins, in an appeal from a lower-court ruling that said the dispute was an internal church matter outside the proper sphere of the civil courts.

"In our society, jealous as it is of separation of church and state, one who enters the clergy forfeits the protection of the civil authorities in terms of job rights," said the 4th District Court of Appeal in a 3-0 ruling May 23.

The court said Higgins' complaints of libel, invasion of privacy and other mistreatment by Maher, even if true, all involved actions that were "inseparable parts of a process of divestiture of priestly authority" in which courts should not intervene.

Higgins' lawyer, Glen Margolis, said he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Decision Sets a 'Horrible Precedent'

"This is a horrible precedent," Margolis said. "It gives Roman Catholic bishops and other members of the hierarchy carte blanche to abuse, coerce, defame and do just about anything they darn please to their priests," with a few specified exceptions such as theft and battery.

He said he was not at liberty to discuss Higgins' present situation, but he said Higgins had once been "a brilliant scholar ... an outstanding authority on canon law."

He is recovering from his mistreatment but suffered permanent damage from the electroshock, Margolis said.

Dave Carothers, a lawyer for Maher, was unavailable Thursday, his office said.

Higgins, appointed administrator of a San Diego church by Maher in 1978, said he reported financial improprieties in the church and Maher's staff to the bishop over several years, but nothing was done.

In 1980, Higgins said, Maher confronted him with two letters complaining of "social misconduct" by Higgins; the language quoted by the court indicated an allegation of sexual misconduct. Higgins said he was shown one of the letters and realized it was a forgery of which Maher was aware.

Plaintiff Was Denounced by Bishop

Higgins said he followed the church's grievance procedures, including a communication to the Vatican, in protesting the accusations. He said Maher responded by denouncing him and then suspending him in January, 1982, writing in a memorandum that Higgins had "frequently solicited people" and caused "grave scandal."

Higgins said the church persuaded him to enter a rehabilitation program with a church organization called Paracletes, which gave him drugs that affected his reasoning ability and also administered electroshock.

He said he got a job as a church hospital chaplain in Illinois in 1985 but was dismissed after Paracletes, with Maher's knowledge, told his employer about his past treatment.

Higgins said his suspension was supposed to end in 1985 under church rules, so he returned to San Diego in 1987 and tried to resume his career as a priest but was thwarted by a church official, on Maher's authority.

His suit against Maher and the diocese claimed wrongful termination; invasion of privacy, by disclosure to various people of his confidential treatment at Paracletes; defamation, by false accusations of misconduct; and infliction of emotional distress.

A San Diego Superior Court judge dismissed the suit without a trial and was upheld by the appeals court.


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