Can a priest who claims he is being punished for turning in a fellow priest who was having sex with an altar boy, sue his local catholic diocese for defamation?  The state appellate court in San Francisco says yes.


Here you have two competing interests.  There is a state law which requires members of the clergy to report incidents of child abuse.  On the other side you have the rights of church officials to discipline their priests without court review. 


This matter stems out of a 1997 case in which the reverend John Conley told the police that he had seen the reverend James Aylward having sexual contact with a seventeen year old boy.  Conley states that the Roman Catholic diocese in San Francisco retaliated for his having gone to the authorities by placing him on Administrative leave and attempting to publicly discredit him. 


Thereafter, reverend Aylward admitted to inappropriate sexual contact with numerous minors and the archdiocese paid a $750,000 settlement to the previously mentioned altar boy.  The Church, however, stated that it had the ability to discipline reverend Conley whether he was right or wrong regarding that which he told the police. 


Well, they picked on the wrong priest.  Mr. Conley is a former federal prosecutor and in his lawsuit he claimed that his reputation was attacked as the archediocese knowingly and falsely told other priests that Conley himself had committed “inappropriate conduct during Church functions.”  The diocese required Conley to undergo extensive psychological testing.  The diocese also wrote a letter which was published by the San Francisco Examiner accusing Conley of inappropriately targeting Reverend Aylward. 


The archdiocese won round one when the trial court judge dismissed the Conley complaint concluding that this was an ecclesiastical matter and that his court did not have jurisdiction. 


Round two goes to Conley as the appellate court unanimously concluded that Conley was required by law to report suspected child abuse and therefore the church was not entitled to judicial immunity in cases such as this.  The court drew a distinction between administrative and personnel decisions in which religious institutions do have immunity from court review as opposed to this situation in which the enforcement of the Child Abuse Neglect Reporting Act was more important than the unfettered freedom of the church.  A priest is what is referred to as a “mandatory reporter.”  If he see’s something like this, the law requires him to speak to the authorities.  The appellate court concluded that it is necessary to protect mandatory reporters from being punished for doing that which the law requires of them. 


The church is now looking at a major financial hit as they put all of their eggs in the “immunity basket” and they have never denied doing that which Conley claims they did.  What this means is that Mr. Conley can now have his day in court and a jury will decide whether or not the Roman Catholic Church is liable and if so, for how much. 


This is clearly the correct decision.  I find it troubling that the Church would want to interfere with someone complying with the law, especially in a situation as important as this where a child is being sexually molested.  I can’t think of too many more situations that would be as important for a priest to feel free to report as is this one.  Many of us have read a number of unfortunate stories along these lines in the newspapers and as it is apparently still going on, it needs to be stopped.  The state of California feels it is so important that it passed its reporting law in 1980.  I understand the value of the Church having it’s ability to handle ecclesiastical matters relatively unfettered however relatively is the key word here.  This is not a garden variety administrative or personnel decision, which, in the past has been deemed outside of the jurisdiction of the courts.  This goes to upholding an extremely important law and reverend Conley ought to have been commended, not thrown to the wolves.