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SÃO PAULO — A Brazilian man who was forcibly laicized by the Church two years ago, meaning expelled from the priesthood, is now appealing to the secular Supreme Court in the world’s largest Catholic country, in effect seeking damages against the church he claims unjustly penalized him.

Although laicization is an internal church matter and thus normally considered beyond the reach of secular courts, an attorney for the ex-priest is arguing that because the Vatican has treaty agreements with Brazil, it’s obligated to abide by Brazilian guarantees of due process and a right to defense.

The lawsuit does not seek to compel the church to reinstate Alcimir Pillotto to the priesthood, but rather to force the church to reinstate his pension and cover his insurance costs. The case already has been dismissed at lower levels, but attorneys are now vowing to take it to the country’s Supreme Court.

Pillotto, who had been in charge of a parish in the city of Blumenau in Brazil’s Santa Catarina State in the southern part of the country, was expelled from the clerical state in 2020.

Although members of the community say they’ve never been officially informed by the Diocese of Blumenau of the reasons behind Pillotto’s dismissal, attorney Telêmaco Marrace, who represents Pillotto, said the former priest was accused of having a love affair with the parish secretary, who lived and worked with him for several years.

“I visited the rectory when they lived there, and what I saw was that each one of them had their own bedroom. I believe in his integrity,” Marrace told Crux.

The attorney said Pillotto also was accused of violating the seal of confession, although no details have been provided on the circumstances of the alleged violation.

Pillotto has been supported by a group of members of the parish since the beginning of the controversy. They were responsible for hiring the lawyers who have been assisting the former priest, including Marrace.

He explained Pillotto’s supporters first tried to make their case to the church, but without success.

“A priest who is a canonist prepared a great defense, but in the middle of the process a letter came from the Vatican dismissing Father Pillotto. There has been no opportunity of defense,” Marrace argued.

Even Pillotto’s exit from the parish generated controversy. He was told to leave within a week, and when the appointed hour came, Pillotto’s replacement showed up with a group of laity who didn’t care for Pillotto. In turn, Pillotto’s secretary alerted  his supporters, who likewise flocked to the parish.

In the end, the police had to be called to keep the peace.

“When I arrived there, I met an old man [he is 71 now], suffering from cancer, and losing his work benefits, including his health insurance plan and his stipend,” Marrace said.

Rosangela Floriano was one of Pillotto’s friends who went to the rectory that day.

“We went there with five lawyers and several community leaders. We ended up managing to get an injunction allowing the priest to remain there for some time,” she told Crux.

The group also denounced the situation to the local press and tried to talk to Bishop Rafael Biernaski, according to Floriano.

“He just avoided us,” she said.

A few days later, Pillotto decided to leave. Supporters paid for the transportation of his belongings and gave him money for food and medicines. After some time in treatment for leukemia, he went to the city of Erechim, in neighboring Rio Grande do Sul State, where he now lives with relatives.

“We have a social media group, and talk to him every now and then. His health has declined since all that happened. He is very sad for not being a priest anymore,” Floriano added.

In the suit, Marrace argued that Pillotto did not have the opportunity of properly defending himself, given that the Vatican letter arrived before the legal process was concluded.

“Of course, it is an internal process of the Church. But the Church has agreements with Brazil and has to respect the country’s laws, giving adequate possibilities of defense to every defendant in canonical lawsuits,” he said.

A member of the clergy who accompanied Pillotto’s ecclesiastical case told Crux that he was ill when the time for him to present his arguments arrived. He said an appeal was then sent to the Vatican, but nobody knows if it was even considered.

“Today, if a bishop wants to dismiss a priest, he is able to do it. The administrative penal suit only functions as a way of attributing to the process some aspect of legality,” the member of the clergy, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Crux.

Marrace said that his goal now is to recover Pillotto’s stipend and health insurance.

“He understands that he is not a priest anymore, given that one cannot oppose a pontifical decision. He does not have the health conditions to work as a priest anymore,” Marrace lamented.

Since the lawsuit began, the Church began to pay again for Pillotto’s health insurance plan, the attorney affirmed.

“But there are no guarantees that the Church will keep paying for it if it loses the case. That is what we have been trying to secure,” he explained.

Both a first instance court and a state court rejected Pillotto’s arguments, maintaining that the church has its own criteria to deal with its internal affairs.

“I am taking the case to the Supreme Court, given that it relates to constitutional matters. In my opinion, the church turned its back on Pillotto,” Marrace declared.

For Floriano, Pillotto’s success in reuniting members of the parish after several conflicts in the past probably attracted his colleagues’ “envy.”

“At least 100 families left the parish along with Pillotto. Many people even left Catholicism. That case had a huge spiritual impact for many of us,” said Floriano, who used to be a catechist and liturgy coordinator but distanced herself from the parish after the priest was laicized.