Court: Episcopal Parish Cannot Secede

By David O'Reilly
Philadelphia Inquirer
January 5, 2006

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected a Philadelphia parish's attempt to quit the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, but ruled that the parish - not the diocese - holds title to its assets.

In a decision released last week, the high court affirmed two lower court rulings that St. James the Less parish in East Falls cannot leave the diocese unilaterally.

But the Supreme Court also reversed portions of the decisions of the lower courts and said that St. James' antebellum church buildings and other assets belong to the parish, which holds them "in trust" for the diocese.

Attorney Valerie Munson, who argued the case for St. James, said Tuesday that much of the case was narrowly decided and had implications only for the parish. The court noted that the parish's founding charter of 1846 made clear that it was a part of the diocese and the National Episcopal Church, the predecessor of the Episcopal Church USA.

Munson said the decision regarding ownership of parish assets may have implications for other hierarchical denominations when they want to sell off the holdings of closed parishes.

Several Catholic dioceses have recently declared bankruptcy or closed and sold parishes to settle multimillion-dollar judgments against them.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering calls from sex-abuse victims and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office to establish a one-year "window" of opportunity to file lawsuits for assaults committed years ago.

"This case gives us some indication of what the [Pennsylvania] court is thinking" about parish property, said Munson, who specializes in church property law.

(Last week an Oregon bankruptcy judge ruled that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, not individual parishes, owns all parish assets.)

The Rev. David Ousley, rector of St. James, said yesterday he was "very disappointed" by the court decision and that he expected he and his family would soon have to vacate the parish rectory.

He and the vestry, or church officers, of this traditionalist parish had sought to leave the diocese because they reject what they regard as liberalizing trends in the Episcopal Church USA and the diocese.

Ousley said he expected most parishioners would quit the parish, perhaps to found a traditionalist Anglican congregation, "but that's very much up in the air."

Bishop Charles Bennison of the Diocese of Pennsylvania said yesterday that diocesan officials would talk to any remaining parishioners before he appointed a new vestry or rector.


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