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Kavanagh v. Zwilling

United States District Court, S.D. New York

February 14, 2014

JOSEPH ZWILLING, et al., Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Charles M. Kavanagh, Plaintiff: John D. Peters, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Charfoos & Christensen, Detroit, MI; Ann K. Mandt, J. Douglas Peters, PRO HAC VICE, Charfoos & Christensen, P.C., Detroit, MI; John Dearie, Law J. C. Dearie, Bronx, NY; Thomas Anthony Boyle, Jr., John A. Aretakis, New York, NY.

For Joseph Zwilling, John Woods, Archdiocese of New York, Catholic New York, Defendants: John Morgan Callagy, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nicholas John Panarella, Kelley Drye & Warren, LLP (NY), New York, NY.


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JESSE M. FURMAN, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Charles Kavanagh is a former Catholic priest who was defrocked after being found guilty in a secret church trial of the ecclesiastical sin of sexual abuse of a minor. (Compl. (Docket No. 1) ¶ ¶ 1, 29, 30). After his conviction, Plaintiff pursued a defamation claim in this Court against his accuser, Daniel Donohue, which resulted in a settlement pursuant to which Donohue signed a statement changing one aspect of his prior testimony. Thereafter, the Archdiocese of New York (the " Archdiocese" ) issued a press release acknowledging the change in Donohue's account, but stating that Kavanagh had been " found guilty by a Church court of multiple counts of sexual abuse of a minor" and that the change in Donohue's testimony had no " bearing on the court's ruling, or on its penalty that Mr. Kavanagh be removed from the priesthood and returned to the lay state." (Compl., Ex. 1). The press release was printed in full in the Archdiocese's newspaper, Catholic New York (" CNY " ). (Compl., Ex. 2, at 2).

In this suit, Kavanagh brings libel claims against the Archdiocese and its Director of Communications, Joseph Zwilling, as well as CNY and its Editor-in-Chief, John Woods, alleging that the press release defamed him by falsely suggesting that he was found guilty of multiple counts of sexual abuse, by falsely implying that he was found guilty in a civil court, and by falsely leading people to believe that he had been convicted of abusing more than one minor. Pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Defendants now move to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety. Their principal argument is that adjudicating Kavanagh's claims would require the Court or a jury to " interpret canonical procedure, standards, and decisions; assess church law and doctrine; examine and assess the evidence presented in the prior canonical proceedings; and thereby impermissibly entangle itself in matters of the ecclesiastical hiring and firing of a church's ministers, all of which would violate the religious liberty clauses to the First Amendment." (Mem. Law Supp. Defs.' Mot. To Dismiss Compl. and Mot. To Seal (Docket No. 11) (" Defs.' Mem." ) 3). The Court agrees that proceeding with Plaintiff's primary claim would violate the First Amendment. For that reason, and for the other reasons discussed below, Defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED.


The following facts, which are taken from the Complaint and documents it references,

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are construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. See, e.g., Aurecchione v. Schoolman Transp. Sys., Inc., 426 F.3d 635, 638 (2d Cir. 2005).[1]

Kavanagh, now a resident of Florida, was an ordained Catholic priest in New York. (Compl. ¶ 1). In May 2002, Donohue contacted Edward Cardinal Egan -- then the Archbishop of New York -- and claimed that, over twenty years earlier, he had been sexually abused by Kavanagh while he was a student at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary (" Cathedral Prep" ), where Kavanagh had been a teacher. (Compl. ¶ ¶ 9, 11). Donohue cited two incidents: one when Kavanagh had " jumped on him and rubbed his face on Donohue" ; and one when Kavanagh, wearing only underwear, got into bed with Donohue and rubbed up against him. (Compl. ¶ 10). According to Donohue's original account, the latter incident occurred on a school field trip to a Right to Life March in Washington, D.C. during his senior year in high school. ( Id.). Kavanagh denied that he had ever sexually abused Donohue or anyone else. (Compl. ¶ 13).

Shortly after Donohue's informal complaint, Cardinal Egan ordered Kavanagh to vacate his residence at St. Raymond's Church and told him that he was prohibited from acting as a priest in light of the accusation. (Compl. ¶ 11). The Archdiocese also informed the media of Kavanagh's suspension. ( Id.). According to Kavanagh, that was the first time the Archdiocese had ever made a public announcement regarding a sexual abuse accusation against a priest. ( Id.). Between May 25, 2002, and December 2010, the press published " multiple" stories regarding the accusations against Kavanagh. (Compl. ¶ 14).

In August 2003, Cardinal Egan told Kavanagh that he was recommending that Kavanagh be permanently removed from the priesthood. (Compl. ¶ 16). Cardinal Egan asked Kavanagh to consent to such removal, but Kavanagh refused and indicated he would contest any attempt to remove him. ( Id.). Sometime thereafter, the Archdiocese referred Kavanagh's case to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in Rome. (Compl. ¶ ¶ 17, 20). (Kavanagh alleges that, after the case was referred to the Vatican, Cardinal Egan " attempt[ed] to prejudice the Congregation" by writing a letter to William Cardinal Levada, its prefect, " claiming that [Kavanagh] was 'abusing' him[,] i.e.[,] Cardinal Egan." (Compl. ¶ 20).) In January 2006, the Congregation denied Cardinal Egan's request to summarily defrock Kavanagh, and instead called for a secret, canonical trial to take place in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Compl. ¶ 21).[2]

The canonical trial began in November 2006. (Compl. ¶ 22).[3] Three priests

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served as judges. (Compl. ¶ 24). Allegedly, neither Kavanagh nor his attorney was allowed to review the evidence against him before the trial began. ( Id.). Witnesses swore an oath to tell the truth; they also took a vow of secrecy on pain of excommunication. (Compl. ¶ ¶ 24-25). At trial, there was conflicting evidence about whether Donohue had attended the Right to Life March while he was in high school: Donohue himself testified that he had, while other students and teachers testified that no students from Cathedral Prep had attended the rally. (Compl. ¶ ¶ 25-26). One of Donohue's classmates at Cathedral College testified that he and Donohue, accompanied by Kavanagh, had attended a Right to Life March during his and Donohue's sophomore year of college. (Compl. ¶ 27). Kavanagh sought to use this evidence to show that whatever events might have taken place occurred while Donohue was an adult. ( See id .).

The canonical court issued its opinion, totaling thirty-six pages, on November 12, 2008. (Compl. ¶ 29). Its findings are heavily disputed and at the heart of this motion. According to the Complaint, the canonical court credited Donohue's testimony that he had attended the Right to Life March with Kavanagh while he was in high school, and found Kavanagh guilty of " one count" of sexual abuse of a minor. (Compl. ¶ 30). Defendants vigorously contest this characterization of court's decision, however, claiming that Kavanagh was found guilty of " multiple counts, or 'delicts' of sexual abuse of a minor under the age of sixteen," in violation of the Sixth Commandment.[4] (Defs.' Mem. 7; see also Welch Decl. ¶ 7). In either case, the canonical court decreed that Kavanagh should be removed as a priest. Kavanagh appealed to a reviewing church court comprised of another three priests, which, in September 2010, affirmed in a secret opinion totaling thirteen pages, and Kavanagh was defrocked. (Compl. ¶ ¶ 30, 32).[5]

During the canonical court proceedings, Donohue's statements about when the trip to the Right to Life March occurred were published in various media outlets, including The New York Post and The Journal News . (Compl. ¶ 31). On March 26, 2011, almost eight months after the appellate decision affirming his conviction and removal, Kavanagh filed suit in this Court against Donohue for defamation, on the grounds that Donohue's statements about when the trip occurred were false. (Compl. ¶ 33). On April 26, 2012, the Honorable Michael Hogan of the United States District Court for the District of Oregon mediated the dispute. (Compl. ¶ 34). As a result of that mediation, Donohue admitted that the trip to Washington had not occurred while he was in high school, and he signed a statement to that effect. ( Id.; Compl., Ex. 5).

Three days later, in an apparent attempt to have himself reinstated to the clergy, Kavanagh wrote a " private letter" to Timothy Cardinal Dolan -- Cardinal Egan's successor -- informing him of Donohue's signed statement and offering the Archdiocese " a chance to be the ...

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