Clergy — Constitutional Law

By Steven P. Bann
New Jersey Law Journal
May 30, 1991

Where plaintiff-priest was convicted of charges involving sexual offenses, his complaint against the diocese and pastors alleging breach of contract for failure to pay his legal fees is dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under the First Amendment's free-exercise and establishment clauses since religious law governs the relationship between clergy members, giving that relationship an ecclesiastical quality which permeates this civil action.

Law Division; McElroy v. Guilfoyle et al, L-04491-90; opinion by Drozdowski,

J.S.C.; decided November 14, 1990; in Opinions Approved column April 25, 1991.

In 1985, plaintiff was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest and assigned to work as an associate pastor at St. Francis de Sales church in Barrington. In 1988, plaintiff was arrested and charged with several sexual offenses involving a minor. That same day, defendant Bishop Guilfoyle restricted plaintiff from any further exercise of his priestly ministry. Two days later, Guilfoyle suspended plaintiff from all priestly functions. Plaintiff received his employment benefits for the rest of the month but further payments were discontinued. In 1989, plaintiff was convicted of the aforementioned charges. That matter is now on appeal.

In 1990, plaintiff filed his complaint against defendants George Guilfoyle, James McHugh and the Diocese of Camden. Plaintiff contends that Guilfoyle, with the authority to bind the diocese, promised to handle plaintiff's legal affairs, including the payment of plaintiff's legal fees, involved in plaintiff's defense of the criminal charges. Plaintiff alleges that defendants have failed to honor this obligation and demands compensatory and punitive damages of $ 2,500,000.

Guilfoyle states that he had promised, on behalf of the diocese, to pay plaintiff's legal fees in defense of a prior, unrelated theft charge and that the diocese did, in fact, loan plaintiff the money to defend the theft charge.

Guilfoyle denies having made any representations concerning the sexual offenses and, indeed, states that such promises would have been unauthorized without the consent of the diocesan finance council.

Generally, civil courts have no jurisdiction over, and no concern with, spiritual matters and the administration of church affairs that do not affect the civil or property rights of individuals. The relationship between a priest and his diocese is not to be interfered with by civil courts, thus permitting priests to be selected, ordained, disciplined or discharged for reasons which the church deems proper.

However, temporal matters of a church affecting civil, contract or property rights may be resolved in civil courts. Thus, secular courts may decide civil disputes between a religious body and its members or its clergy if those disputes involve purely secular issues and can be resolved without entanglement with matters of faith, discipline or doctrine. In such cases, courts are to apply neutral principles of law to the facts presented.

Here, plaintiff argues that this court should apply neutral principles of contract law in determining whether defendants failed to honor their obligations.

Defendant's purported obligation to support plaintiff's defense of a criminal action is intertwined with, and dependent upon, plaintiff's tenure as a priest. The Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church details the reciprocal duties and obligations among clergy members. The Code also sets forth the appropriate sanctions for failure to honor these obligations. In short, the Code of Canon Law governs the relationship between clergy members, lending that relationship an ecclesiastical quality which permeates this action.

While plaintiff urges that this is a secular matter requiring the simple application of common-law contract principles, plaintiff has not clearly delineated how his claims are divorced from ecclesiastical issues. In describing the gravamen of his complaint, plaintiff relies both on Guilfoyle's verbal promise of support and the Church's preexisting similar duty. In order to reach the contention that defendants have not honored these obligations, a civil court would necessarily inquire into the nature (religious or secular) of these alleged obligations. This inquiry would, of course, involve a searching and detailed exploration of the doctrine and practice of the Roman Catholic Church in order to determine the existence of such obligations. Civil courts are enjoined from such inquiry by the First Amendment establishment and free-exercise clauses.

Moreover, assuming that Guilfoyle's promise of support was completely divorced from religious considerations, whether Guilfoyle had the authority to bind the other defendants by such promises remains an ecclesiastical matter, requiring inquiry into the structure of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the relationship between a bishop and his diocese. An agency relationship between a bishop and his diocese may only be determined by reference to Church law.

Held: Defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint under Rule 4:6-2(a) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction is granted.

For plaintiff -- Anthony J. Brady, Jr. (Charles A. Lutz). For defendants --

Martin F. McKernan, Jr. (McKernan and McKernan).


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