Law360 (August 13, 2019, 3:09 PM EDT) -- A Catholic priest accusing the bishop of Charleston of taking steps to defrock him for reporting his childhood sexual abuse can’t sue for retaliatory discharge in South Carolina federal court, a judge there ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge David Norton granted the bishop’s motion to dismiss Michael Cassabon’s suit, saying the District of South Carolina lacks diversity jurisdiction over the suit because Cassabon — a U.S. citizen — lives in Canada.
Judge Norton said federal courts have diversity jurisdiction over two types of disputes: those between “citizens of different states” and those between “citizens of a state and citizens or subjects of a foreign state.” Cassabon’s suit is neither, the judge said.
“Cassabon is not a citizen of a state [under jurisdictional law] nor is he a foreign citizen,” Judge Norton said. “Therefore, he is unable to invoke diversity jurisdiction.”
Cassabon sued the Bishop of Charleston — the organization comprising the Catholic Church in South Carolina, as well as the actual bishop, Robert Guglielmone — in March. Cassabon alleged that Guglielmone inflicted emotional distress and retaliated against him because he reported abuse by former priest Hayden Vaverek in the late 1990s, when Cassabon was a student at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. Cassabon would go on to become a priest in the Diocese of Charleston.
Cassabon, who is gay and married, claimed Guglielmone sent him a letter threatening do defrock him for failing “to maintain priestly continence and celibacy” in February. Cassabon alleges Guglielmone sent him the letter because he reported his abuse to the church and asked the diocese for assistance dealing with the trauma. Guglielmone knew about Cassabon’s marriage and sexuality before sending the letter and only sent it because Cassabon came forward, he alleged.
The Bishop of Charleston asked Judge Norton to dismiss Cassabon’s suit in late May, arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear his claims under the “doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention,” which bars courts from resolving religious disputes under the First Amendment. It also argued that the court lacked jurisdiction under the similar “ministerial exception,” which bars courts from second-guessing how churches staff religious jobs.
The church did not argue that the court lacked diversity jurisdiction over the suit, but Judge Norton opted to do so of his own accord, finding Cassabon’s case to be out of his hands.
Cassabon’s attorney, Gregg Meyers, said he is considering refiling the case in state court.
A representative for the diocese did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cassabon is represented by Gregg Meyers.
The bishop is represented by Richard Dukes
of Turner Padget