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Diocese of Palm Beach, Inc. v. Gallagher

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

May 9, 2018


         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Petition for Writ of Prohibition to the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Meenu Sasser, Judge; L.T. Case No. 50-2017-CA-000337-XXXX-MB.

          J. Patrick Fitzgerald and Associates, and J. Patrick Fitzgerald, Roberto Diaz, and Maura F. Jennings, and Gaebe, Mullen, Antonelli & DiMatteo, and Elaine D. Walter and Michael A. Mullen, for petitioner.

          Babbitt & Johnson, P.A., and Theodore Babbitt, and Burlington & Rockenbach, P.A., and Philip M. Burlington and Nichole J. Segal, for respondent.

          Luck, R., Associate Judge. [1]

         Father John Gallagher, a Catholic priest, sued the diocese in which he served, the Diocese of Palm Beach, Inc., for defamation. The diocese moved to dismiss the complaint based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which prevents civil courts from deciding matters that require adjudication of theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, and the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them. The trial court denied the dismissal motion, declining to apply the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine because Father Gallagher's defamation claims could be resolved based on neutral legal principles without entangling the courts in the interpretation and application of church law, policies, and practices. We disagree, and grant the diocese's petition for writ of prohibition, because Father Gallagher's defamation claim, which arises out of an employment dispute between him and the diocese, cannot be resolved without the courts excessively entangling themselves in what is essentially a religious dispute.


         Father Gallagher was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church on June 21, 1992. He first served in his homeland of Northern Ireland, later immigrating to the United States. In 2000, Father Gallagher was incardinated with the Diocese of Palm Beach. Father Gallagher held the following positions with the diocese:

• Sept. 1, 2000-Aug. 1, 2002: Parochial vicar at St. Anastacia Church, Ft. Pierce
• Aug. 1, 2002-June 30, 2005: Parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola, Palm Beach Gardens
• July 1, 2005-Sept. 30, 2009: Parochial vicar at St. Joan of Arc Church, Boca Raton
• Oct. 1, 2009-July 12, 2012: Special leave to study[2]
• Dec. 1, 2013-June 30, 2014: Parochial vicar, Holy Name of Jesus Church, West Palm Beach
• July 1, 2014-June 30, 2015: Parochial administrator, Holy Name
• July 1, 2015-present: Special leave.

         Father Gallagher began his association with the Holy Name of Jesus Church in December 2013 when he was assigned to that parish as parochial vicar.[3] On April 14, 2014, Father Gallagher was named parochial administrator of Holy Name. In December of that year, Father Joseph Palimattom, a priest from India, was assigned to assist Father Gallagher as parochial vicar. Father Palimattom had not been with the church a month when the incident sparking the controversy between Father Gallagher and the diocese occurred.

         On the evening of January 5, 2015, Father Gallagher received a text message from the church's music minister. A 14-year old boy complained to the music minister that Father Palimattom had shown him numerous photographs containing child pornography. The matter was referred to the Palm Beach County sheriff's office, who arrested Father Palimattom. As a result of the investigation, Father Palimattom pleaded guilty to possessing and showing pornography to a minor, was briefly incarcerated, and subsequently deported to India.

         After the incident, Father Gallagher was reassigned from Holy Name. Diocese officials met with Hispanic members of Holy Name who were dissatisfied with how they were treated by Father Gallagher. The diocese personnel committee, in May 2015, discussed Father Gallagher's assignment. Ultimately, the bishop decided not to offer Father Gallagher the office of pastor to Holy Name, but instead to transfer him to another parish. Father Gallagher did not accept the transfer and instead took leave.

         Father Gallagher believed that the diocese attempted to cover-up the sexual abuse incident, and that his reassignment was intended as punishment for not going along with the cover-up. Father Gallagher initially complained to Catholic Church officials. When this was unsuccessful, Father Gallagher went to the Irish media.

         Father Gallagher told an interviewer on Irish radio that he exposed the workings of the diocese and Vatican and their lack of transparency in complying with policies and procedures in exposing pedophiles. Father Gallagher said of the Church that it had proven it did not have integrity, honor, and a moral compass to self-police, and the powers-that-be are corrupt all the way through to the bishop. The Church, Father Gallagher said, had a corporate mindset, and as the oldest government in the world its corruption was unique to itself. Father Gallagher explained that he was being attacked for exposing the crime and had the full wrath of the diocese.

         In response, a number of diocese officials commented about Father Gallagher publicly to parishioners and the local press. The diocese's response is the basis ...

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