Church Asks State Top Court To Drop Suit Filed by Priest


Church Asks State Top Court To Drop Suit Filed by Priest

Archdiocese says legal action would infringe on religious freedom

Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saying churches must be free to discipline their clergy, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco has asked the state Supreme Court to dismiss a suit by a priest who was placed on leave after reporting suspected child abuse by a colleague.

It is "constitutionally essential that churches be free to choose, discipline, assign and terminate clergy without the specter of state (including judicial) oversight," Paul Gaspari, a lawyer for the church, said in papers filed with the court last week.

Those who enter the clergy "forfeit the protection of the civil laws when it comes to 'employment' matters," he added.

The archdiocese is appealing a Dec. 29 ruling reinstating a damage suit by the Rev. John Conley, who has been removed from the pulpit and assigned to lesser duties while on administrative leave. The church says the discipline was for behavioral problems, but Conley calls it retaliation.

Conley, a priest since 1983, saw the Rev. James Aylward wrestling with a teenage boy in a darkened rectory room at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Burlingame in November 1997. Conley reported the incident to his superiors.

Aylward denied wrongdoing and was not prosecuted, but eventually was relieved of his duties after admitting in a civil deposition that he had a history of touching boys for sexual pleasure in previous church jobs. The archdiocese has paid $750,000 to settle a suit by the teenager at St. Catherine.

The archdiocese contends that it encouraged Conley to report the incident to police. But Conley says he is being punished for doing his duty under a state law that requires members of the clergy, among others, to report suspected child abuse to authorities.

The suit was dismissed by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay, who said allowing the case to proceed would violate religious freedom even if Conley's allegations were true. But a three-judge Court of Appeal panel revived the case Dec. 29, saying the "compelling state interest in protecting children" justified legal scrutiny of the church's disciplinary action.

In asking the state's high court to review the case, the archdiocese said the constitutional separation of church and state forbids allowing a judge or jury to evaluate its reasons for disciplining a religious employee.

The appellate ruling is "an unprecedented and dangerous incursion into the ecclesiastical and religious relationship between a priest and his archbishop, indeed between all churches and their clergy," Gaspari wrote.

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com.


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