In nearly a year since the Supreme Court upheld ministerial exception, the concept has been used successfully to dismiss employee lawsuits in a handful of cases across the country. They include:
• Philip E. Cannata, a music director at a Catholic church in the Diocese of Austin, Texas, who claimed he was fired because of age and disability discrimination.
• Janet Herzog, a fired Lutheran elementary school teacher in Illinois who taught religion and other secular subjects. She claimed she was discriminated against because of age, sex and marital status.
• An ongoing federal lawsuit filed by Emily Herx, a former Catholic School teacher in Illinois, who claimed she was discriminated against when the Diocese found out she had undergone in-vitro fertilization and failed to renew her contract.
Read The News-Press' May 8, 2012 exclusive: Ex-Bishop Verot teacher puts ruling to the test (with documents and video)
May 8, 2012: Diocese of Venice defends priest, dismissal (with documents)
June 21, 2011: Teacher say Bishop Verot firing came after wanting priest investigated
(includes original lawsuit document)
A former Bishop Verot High School religion teacher cannot claim discrimination or receive compensation as a result of his firing, an appeals court has ruled.
Chris Wilson said he was fired from the Catholic high school in Fort Myers about 18 months ago after he blew the whistle on a priest who asked inappropriate sexual questions of teenage girls during confession. His lawsuit sought monetary compensation from the school, the Diocese of Venice, the school’s principal, and Bishop Frank Dewane, who oversees the diocese and its more than 250,000 Catholics in a nine-county area.
The diocese countered Wilson was a disgruntled employee fired for unprofessional behavior.
In an emailed statement responding to the appeals court decision, Billy Atwell, diocese spokesman, wrote: “Regarding his lawsuit, Mr. Wilson objected to comments made during the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) between students and a priest. There is no evidence of abuse; likewise the Department of Children and Families (DCF), local law enforcement, the school, the Diocese of Venice, and two courts have concluded the same.”
Wilson’s initial lawsuit, filed in the 20th Judicial Circuit, was dismissed on the basis of “ministerial exception,” a little-known legal concept.
The concept was upheld for the first time in January by the U.S. Supreme Court. It says, in effect, a religious institution can fire whomever it wants if an employee’s work is considered to be ministerial. The judicial system’s discrimination laws do not apply because they would infringe on the freedom of religion. However, the court did not provide a strict formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister, leaving that to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Experts called it one of the most significant rulings on religious freedom by the high court in decades.
Wilson’s attorney, Sheldon Stevens of Winter Park, had argued Wilson may have taught theology as a lay person, but he was not granted power to perform priestly or clerical duties. Stevens filed an appeal with the Second District Court of Appeals in Sarasota. The lower court’s dismissal was upheld without comment in late November.
“I’m disappointed in that the court did not write an opinion,” Stevens said. “I hope that the bishop does not consider that the affirmation of the lower court gives him” freedom to do as he wishes.
Wilson said the ruling is a warning to other employees of religious institutions “that they sign away their civil rights when they sign on the dotted line.”
He claimed in the lawsuit the Rev. Cory Mayer asked at least five female students whether they had sex or masturbated while hearing their confessions April 14, 2011. In at least one instance, Mayer said he would refuse absolution unless questions were answered, Wilson said.
The priest was not charged with sexual abuse or any other crime.
Wilson now works as an adjunct teacher at Florida Gulf Coast University, teaching two classes on “social issues in the humanities.”
Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest and expert on canon law, addressed the case in a letter to Dewane about two months after the Verot incident occurred. Doyle co-authored a report nearly 30 years ago while working at the Vatican's embassy, warning church officials of an approaching controversy from growing sex abuse allegations.
He said late this week he disagrees with ministerial exception. “Under the Catholic church, lawyers have used that to avoid accountability and responsibility,” Doyle said.