Ex-parishioner files defamation suit against priest

Christian teachings have long stressed the importance of forgiveness, but a conflict last year between a former parishioner and a priest at a Catholic church in Crystal Lake has ended in court instead of a confessional.

The dispute seems to have started in September 2006, when Angel Llavano, a former parishioner at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, left a voice mail message for Rev. Luis Alfredo Rios, an associate pastor, criticizing one of his homilies.

“I attended mass on Sunday and I have seen poor homilies, but yesterday broke all records,” Llavona said, according to a defamation lawsuit that Llavona filed Monday in McHenry County Circuit Court.

Rios responded by playing a recording of Llavona’s phone messages during a mass, then criticized him in front of the congregation, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges that Rios told the congregation, “What should we do? Should we send him to hell or to another parish?”


Although priests and parishioners have tussled throughout the history of the Roman Catholic Church, a legal case involving accusations made from the pulpit is highly unusual, said Allen Shoenberger, a law professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

“I’ve never heard of this happening,” Shoenberger said.

Llavona of Algonquin is a teacher at Maine West High School in Des Plaines and had been involved in St. Thomas’ religious-education program. He is seeking more than $50,000 in damages.

In addition to Rios, Monsignor Daniel Hermes, the parish’s pastor, and the diocese of Rockford are named as defendants.

In the lawsuit, Llavona says he was forced to leave the parish in humiliation and that the incident amounted to defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and public disclosure of private facts.

Llavona and his lawyer, Patrick Gorman, declined to comment Tuesday.

Staff at St. Thomas referred phone calls to the diocese of Rockford, which said it would not specifically address the allegations because it has not yet filed a response in court.

“Disharmony or disagreement between a priest and his parishioners is always unfortunate,” the diocese said in a statement. “We hope that a peaceful solution at St. Thomas the Apostle can be established outside the courts. We pray that all parties involved work together for a responsible resolution.”

Llavona alleges in the lawsuit that he tried to meet with Rios to discuss his concerns about the homily but Rios refused.

The suit also alleges that after playing the recording during a mass on Oct. 1, 2006, Rios said: “This is the person in charge of religious education here last year. That’s why it is no surprise to me we had the kind of religious education we had. That’s why we didn’t get altar boys.”

Rios told the congregation that he had talked to a lawyer who said it was OK to play the recording, according to the lawsuit. He did the same thing at a second mass later in the day.

Llavona went to Hermes between the masses to seek help, but Hermes told Llavona that Rios would not agree to a meeting and that he was “going to let this one go,” according to the lawsuit.

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The Chicago Tribune, USA
Oct. 3, 2007
Megan Twohey
www.chicagotribune.com

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This post was last updated: Oct. 3, 2007