Describing Rev. John Gallagher as a disgruntled priest who falsely accused church leaders of trying to cover up sex abuse by a visiting cleric, the Diocese of Palm Beach on Wednesday urged the Florida Supreme Court not to revive the defamation lawsuit Gallagher filed against the church.
An appeals court was right in May when it threw out the Gallagher’s lawsuit, ruling that the First Amendment prohibits secular courts from meddling in religious affairs, said a team of lawyers from Coral Gables and Washington, D.C., that represent the diocese.
Under what is known as the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, matters of clergy discipline are off-limits to secular courts, the West Palm Beach-based 4th District Court of Appeal ruled.
Gallagher claims the diocese defamed him by saying he was “in need of serious professional help” after he publicly accused Bishop Gerald Barbarito and others of punishing him for helping sheriff’s deputies prosecute a priest who showed pornography to a 14-year-old youth at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in suburban West Palm Beach.
Gallagher’s allegations have nothing to do with church doctrine, his attorneys Ted Babbitt and Philip Burlington claimed in court papers filed in May. Unless the diocese had evidence that Gallagher suffered from mental ills, it must pay him damages for the harm it did to his reputation and their refusal to let him work as a church pastor, they said.
Diocesan attorneys disagree. “Proceeding with Father Gallagher’s claim would necessarily require a court to interfere with the diocese’s vocational decision to hire, retain and discipline its subordinate (and insubordinate) priest Father Gallagher, and intrude upon the diocese’s reasoning for such decisions,” they wrote.
In their 11-page brief, diocesan attorneys said church leaders were forced to “correct the record” after Gallagher told an Irish radio station that church leaders tried to cover up the illicit acts of visiting priest Rev. Jose Varkey Palimattom.
“When Father Gallagher took to the airwaves in his native Ireland to disparage his own bishop and diocese, as well as the pope and the Catholic Church, about this incident, the diocese responded that he was not telling the truth and that he was not yet suited to be a pastor,” the attorneys wrote.
The diocese blasted Gallagher on social media and in a letter Barbarito ordered be read at all Masses in January 2016.
Contrary to Gallagher’s claims, church leaders fully cooperated in Palimattom’s arrest, conviction and deportation to his native India, diocesan attorneys wrote. Gallagher, meanwhile, was lauded by the sheriff’s office for his assistance.