Priest Can't Be Sued For Saying Deceased Went To Hell

A New Mexico state judge ruled in late January that a Roman Catholic priest who announced during a parishioner's funeral that the man had gone to hell cannot be sued for inflicting emotional distress on the dead man's family.

The family of the late Ben Martinez, a former councilman in Chama, sued the Rev. Scott Mansfield of St. Patrick's Church for causing them emotional distress after Mansfield, while presiding at Martinez's funeral on June 17, 2002, allegedly told attendees that Martinez was "lukewarm in this faith," "living in sin," and that "the Lord vomited people like Ben out of his mouth to hell." (Mansfield denied making the comments.)

State Judge Stephen Pfeffer concluded that courts cannot delve into matters of doctrine and theology and punish religious leaders for making doctrinal statements, Religion News Service reported in February. "For thousands of years, churches have been making judgments against people," Peffer wrote. "Dante's 'Inferno' has been talking about sending people to hell for many a year. People aren't shocked by it."

Family members of Martinez, who died of cancer at age 80, were upset by the ruling. "It's sad that a priest can say whatever he wants," said Joanne Martinez, Ben Martinez's daughter-in-law. "There will come a day when he [Mansfield] is judged by the true judge."