The Roman Catholic bishop of Orange County is suing a former charity administrator for libel, an escalation in the prelate’s dispute with influential church philanthropists who have complained to the Vatican about his firing of a nonprofit board.

Bishop Kevin Vann and the Diocese of Orange’s chief financial officer are seeking a retraction, financial compensation and punitive damages from the ex-administrator for an email in which they contend she gave a “false narrative” that suggested that charity funds might be used to cover clergy sex abuse claims.

The Superior Court suit filed earlier this month is the latest development in the bishop’s ongoing conflict with a group of high-dollar donors and other church insiders. Vann terminated the group from the independent Orange Catholic Foundation board in June after they rebuffed his request for millions of dollars in emergency pandemic funding. The board members reported the bishop to the Holy See for allegedly acting beyond his authority and violating state and church law, accusations the bishop denies.

The suit does not name any of the well-connected real estate developers, attorneys, corporate executives or others tossed from the board or the misconduct accusations they made to church officials in Rome and Washington, D.C. It focuses instead on an email written by an administrator ousted after the board firings.

In a July note with the subject line “You can’t make this stuff up,” Suzanne Nunn, a longtime philanthropy consultant who had served as the foundation’s interim executive director, gave 47 peers at Catholic dioceses and organizations around the country a behind-the-scenes account of the dust-up with the bishop.

She laid out Vann’s March request for money to cover an $8-million shortfall related to COVID-19, the directors’ decision to reject the request based on their fiduciary duties and the subsequent firing of the entire board.

“Is this considered a hostile takeover to distribute funds the diocese needs to cover debt? Lawsuits? Is this an overstep of authority?… No one knows” Nunn wrote, adding, “Does the Foundation Board have a fiduciary responsibility to fight this takeover to protect the donor intent and Foundation assets?… All rhetorical questions, but something to consider.”

Those questions are central to the suit brought by Vann and diocesan Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Jensen. They allege that since Nunn referred elsewhere in the note to molestation lawsuits, her queries amounted to an untrue and defamatory assertion that the church was seeking to seize the foundation money to cover those lawsuits rather than the purposes donors intended.

Paying for sex abuse claims is a sensitive topic. A new state law lifted the statute of limitations for some abuse accusations, and Catholic dioceses along with other organizations are bracing for an onslaught of costly litigation that many benefactors do not want to finance.

An attorney for the bishop and Jensen wrote in the suit that the bishop and Jensen had contemplated “what would happen if they turned the other cheek.”

“If no one corrects the record, donors will not donate … because donors will think their money will be used for illicit purposes. In turn, the needy will suffer,” wrote lawyer Todd Theodora….

The above comes from a Nov. 1 story in the L.A. Times.