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.
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.
R., Associate Judge. 
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.
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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
• 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
• Dec. 1, 2013-June 30, 2014: Parochial vicar, Holy Name
of Jesus Church, West Palm Beach
• July 1, 2014-June 30, 2015: Parochial administrator,
• July 1, 2015-present: Special leave.
Gallagher began his association with the Holy Name of Jesus
Church in December 2013 when he was assigned to that parish
as parochial vicar. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
response, a number of diocese officials commented about
Father Gallagher publicly to parishioners and the local
press. The diocese's response is the basis ...