May 13, 2002

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court sidestepped a timely question on Monday: how can priests be sued for alleged misconduct?

Justices refused without comment to review an acrimonious case involving a priest, a divorced former governor and a secretly taped confrontation over the sexual infidelity of the governor's former wife.

The court could have used the Mississippi case to explain church liability. The issue comes to the court as Catholic leaders around the country defend their handling of sexual abuse by priests and face demands for cash settlements. Priests can be prosecuted for crimes, like molestation. This case involves an allegation of a less tangible wrong.

Former Mississippi first lady Julie Mabus says she lost faith in her church and religion over the secret taping. She sued her priest and church for clergy malpractice, breach of duty, fraud and negligence. With the Supreme Court's refusal to intervene, the case goes back to state court and may go to trial. Clergy ``answer to their God, not the state, in matters particular to their religious calling,'' church lawyer Charles E. Ross told the Supreme Court. Mississippi Episcopal leaders wanted the court to stop the lawsuit over a counseling session involving former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus and his now ex-wife.

Ray Mabus, a Democrat who served as governor from 1988-92 and as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1994-96, told the Rev. Jerry McBride he was going to tape record the 1998 meeting at the couple's Jackson home. The taping was kept secret from Julie Mabus.

Her lawyer told the court that priests should be treated like doctors, attorneys and other professionals. They ``should not be allowed to stand above the laws that govern our society and use the First Amendment to shield'' themselves, Kathryn N. Nester wrote in a filing.

The couple divorced, on grounds of adultery. The recorded transcript of the meeting involving Julie Mabus' affair was used in the divorce, and she lost legal custody of their two daughters.

In 1998, McBride was an ordained priest serving as rector of a Jackson church, and he had married the Mabuses 11 years earlier when Ray Mabus was about to launch his campaign for governor. McBride is no longer a priest.

The taping without Julie Mabus' knowledge was not a crime, under Mississippi law. But her attorney said the priest's behavior violated state negligence laws.

The Mississippi Supreme Court refused 5-4 to stop the case.

Ross said in a filing that religious groups ``whether Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other, would find themselves forced to study civil law, as opposed to their religious scripture and internal documents, to determine the correctness of their religious behavior.''

Mabus was defeated in 1992 by Republican Kirk Fordice, who also went through a nasty public divorce.

The case is the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Dioceses of Mississippi v. Mabus, 01-1263.

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