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U.S. Supreme Court rejects priest defamation case against Diocese of Palm Beach

Posted at 9:38 AM, Apr 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-25 11:58:48-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. --- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to take up an appeal by a priest who filed a defamation and libel lawsuit against the Diocese of Palm Beach in a case that involved allegations of another priest showing child pornography to a 14-year-old boy.

Justices, as is common, did not explain their reasons for declining to hear the appeal by priest John Gallagher, who said diocesan officials defamed him after he made public comments about an alleged cover-up of the incident involving the other priest. A South Florida appeals court last year ruled against Gallagher, and the Florida Supreme Court decided against hearing an appeal, prompting the priest to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A panel of judges from the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled against Gallagher last year because it said judges cannot become entangled in church administrative decisions, a legal concept known as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.” The 4th District Court of Appeal ordinarily hears cases from Palm Beach County, but the Florida Supreme Court ordered that a panel from the neighboring 3rd District hear the case.

In a brief filed last month at the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys for the diocese rejected Gallagher’s arguments and said he faced discipline from the diocese because of his conduct.

“This case always has been and still is grounded in an employment dispute between petitioner (Gallagher) and his diocese and bishop that spilled into public disparagement by the petitioner of his bishop and diocese, the Catholic Church and even Pope Francis, to which the diocese responded,” the brief said. “Civil courts must abstain from reviewing the diocese’s ministerial decisions and serving as an arbiter of truth in a dispute over internal priestly discipline.”

But Gallagher’s attorneys argued in a January petition that the U.S. Supreme Court should take up the case because lower courts are in “disarray” about whether such lawsuits are barred against religious organizations. The contended that Gallagher’s claims could “be resolved under neutral principles of law and did not require any determination of church doctrine nor interference in the internal operations of the church.”

“He alleged that the diocese’s conduct damaged his reputation and his livelihood,” the petition said. “He sought an award of damages for… the loss of his good name, for the mental anguish he endured as a result of the diocese’s public humiliation, and for past and future lost income.”

The lawsuit came after series of events that started with allegations in early 2015 that another priest at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in West Palm Beach had shown child pornography to a 14-year-old boy. The other priest, Joseph Palimatton, was arrested, pleaded guilty and was ultimately deported to his native India, according to last year’s appeals-court ruling.

Gallagher later was not offered the job of pastor and was reassigned to another parish, a transfer he did not accept, the appeals court ruling said. He alleged that the diocese tried to cover up the child-pornography incident and that he was reassigned for not going along. Gallagher, who is from Northern Ireland, also made accusations against the diocese during an interview on Irish radio.

The diocese publicly refuted Gallagher’s allegations, including in press reports and in statements to church-goers. In the brief filed at the U.S. Supreme Court, the diocese’s attorneys contended Gallagher “repeatedly and wrongly claimed that he was being demoted by his bishop for exposing a ‘cover-up’ of a sexual abuse incident at his parish.”

Gallagher's attorney, Ted Babbitt, told Contact 5 they were disappointed in the decision and that this is the end of the line for their lawsuit. "We tried everything we know, every remedy we had, there's no further court available to us," says Babbitt. "We think the decision not to take the case was wrong, and the decisions that led up to this case were wrong."

The Diocese of Palm Beach issued this statement:

"The Diocese of Palm Beach is obviously pleased with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. We have made clear throughout this unfortunate litigation that the matter had nothing to do with the covering up of abuse but about the correction of Father John Gallagher in light of his public statements. We are grateful that this decision brings closure to this matter.”

Gallagher is still a priest within the Diocese of Palm Beach, but has been on sick leave. Babbitt said his future is up to the diocese.

WPTV reporter Sam Smink contributed to this report.