Discussing Sex Abuse Claims and Defamation

For various reasons, such as supporting victims or providing a transparent process, churches may wish to publish names of those accused of sexually abusing children. Doing that is not without risk. Here is the story of one Texas church and what happened when it got sued by the alleged offender.

A Recent Texas Case Gave the Church Protection to Discuss Claims


A church in Texas published a list of credible claims of sex abuse against minors. It included the name of an ordained deacon. The church had conducted an investigation of sex abuse allegations at the directive of its Diocese in order to assist victims of abuse, improve the transparency with Texas Catholics, and to promote healing and restoration of trust within the Catholic Church. To further these goals, the church used its website as a way to routinely communicate with and keep its congregation informed. But when the church refused to retract the deacon’s name from the list, he sued for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In a January 2021 decision, the Supreme Court of Texas held the church was protected.1 What did the Court say?

Holding Related to the First Amendment and Church Autonomy

The Texas Supreme Court determined that it lacked jurisdiction because churches have a First Amendment right to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church governance as well of those of faith and doctrine. This doctrine is called ecclesiastical abstention. It addresses a church’s right to autonomy in governing itself, including the rights of higher church authorities to establish internal rules, regulations and tribunals to settle disputes over their religious matters. Judicial entanglement, that is, imposing a court analysis and interpretation of Canon law, would interfere with the church’s autonomy.

But the First Amendment does not bar all claims from being heard by a court. In Texas, a court may exercise jurisdiction if: 1) it can apply neutral principals of law that do not require delving into religious doctrine; 2) it does not interfere with the free-exercise religious rights of believers; or 3) it does not meddle in church governance. For example, the court can decide the non-ecclesiastical issues of property ownership applicable to all entities.

A court must evaluate whether the dispute is ecclesiastical or a civil-law controversy by:

  1. Analyzing the substance and nature of the stated claims;
  2. Asking whether doing so would risk judicial involvement in church matters; and
  3. Evaluating if church doctrine, internal affairs and governance are involved.

The Court went on to evaluate the facts in this case. The Court determined that the Diocese’s directive to investigate and produce a list of credible alleged child abusers was based on the Catholic canonical meaning of minor, as a person who usually lacks the use of reason. Under Canon Law, the definition of minor included vulnerable adults (it was such an adult who accused the deacon). The Court could not investigate, resolve nor evaluate the church’s Canon Law without interfering with the policies, practice and doctrine of the church. The issue was not whether the church published the list beyond the church walls, but whether the publication was a matter of church internal affairs, governance or administration. Because the defamation suit was “inextricably intertwined” with the church’s decision to investigate its own clergy, a court’s hearing of the case would interfere with the church’s ability to regulate the character and conduct of its own leaders. A civil court is prohibited from determining whether a church properly applied its own principles and policies. Therefore, a challenge by the deacon to publication of the list was really a challenge to the Texas Diocese’s directive and the resulting internal investigation into its clergy and application of its Canon Law.

Lessons Learned

The church in this case was free to publish the names of alleged offenders because it was following Canon Law and the direction of the Diocese and the court would not interfere. Had there not been clear ecclesiastical directives, the case might have turned out differently. Also, some courts will analyze whether the defamatory statement has been published outside the church membership, and such a case might also have a different result. So this case cannot be interpreted as a free pass to publish the names of persons accused of various misconduct.

Another aspect to consider in a defamation claim is the secular defenses. Truth is a defense to a defamation claim, so it would usually be safer to publish the results of a criminal conviction and other well-established facts. Allegations of abuse should rise to a reasonable suspicion, and results of an internal investigation are evaluated to the standard of preponderance of the evidence, or more than 50% likely to have happened. It is important to evaluate carefully whether a situation that meets either of these standards makes it just to publish people’s names, given the lower standard of proof, and also whether a “truth” defense would work based on the facts that are proven.

Another aspect to consider is the high expense of litigation in terms of time, money, and negative publicity, even if the church wins in the end.

If churches want to take actions that may lead to litigation, here are some important considerations to defend their rights to manage their internal affairs:

  1. Conform to directives of oversight bodies;
  2. Adhere to the denomination’s norms and policies;
  3. Use clear guidelines for internal investigations and publishing the results;
  4. Respect internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission; and
  5. Take care in exercising a church’s right to shape its own faith and mission, including the church’s freedom to speak in its own voice to its members and to the outside world.

With fully developed plans, policies, guidelines and directives, churches and faith-based organizations are more likely to remain free from court interference in the manner in which they function, manage and internally operate.



Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations