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PENNSYLVANIA: St James the Less loses on appeal to PA Supreme Court

PENNSYLVANIA: St James the Less loses on appeal to PA Supreme Court

By David W. Virtue

PHILADELPHIA, PA (1/1/2006)--The Anglo-Catholic parish of St. James the Less, located in north Philadelphia, lost its appeal in a property case opinion by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this week.

The Orphans Court and the Commonwealth Court had ruled for the Diocese of Pennsylvania, concluding that the property of St. James the Less was owned by the diocese. The Pa Supreme Court reversed the holding of the Commonwealth Court that the Diocese owned the property. The Pa Supreme Court said that St. James owned the property but held it in trust for the Diocese.

Earlier, the Commonwealth Court found that four vestry persons, Karl H. Spaeth, Gary E. Sugden, Becky S. Wilhoite and Robert Snead were liable to the diocese. Fr. David Ousley, parish rector is a not a party to the suit. Pennsylvania Bishop Charles E. Bennison could seek damages from the four vestry persons. One has already departed the parish.

Despite efforts by the parish to merge into a new nonprofit corporation named the CSJL Foundation into which St. James could merge with no ties to the Diocese or the National Episcopal Church, the court did not buy it. The court ruled that this was unauthorized by the laws of Pennsylvania.

The Diocese had sued in the Orphans Court to have the merger declared invalid and to have the Diocese declared the owner of the property.

"Clearly we are very disappointed at the decision; there is real sorrow in having to leave the church after being here for 22 years," Fr Ousley told VirtueOnline.

Asked if he thought the congregation would go with him, Fr. Ousley said he expected the vast majority to do so and the building would probably close down. "Bennison says he will have a vibrant congregation, but his track record of inner city church closures shows otherwise."

Fr. Ousley says a cemetery chapel has been made available to him and his congregation a few miles away where they will meet. He has no new name for the congregation and they have not come under any other ecclesiastical authority. "We are independent for the moment," he said.

The Pa Supreme Court ruled that the parish's charter declared that St. James' held its property in trust for the diocese.

The "Dennis Canon," states that all real and personal property was held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for the National Episcopal Church and the Diocese in which a Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The Pa Supreme Court held that the Dennis Canon did not deprive St James of a vested interest in property because the Charter of St James "makes clear that St. James had already agreed to hold its property in trust prior to the enactment of the Dennis Canon." Therefore, as to St. James, the Pa Supreme Court held that the Dennis Canon merely codified the trust relationship which already existed.

Philadelphia attorney John H. Lewis Jr., who represents Fr. David Moyer in his lawsuits with Bishop Bennison said the decision has no negative effect on Good Shepherd. "Indeed, there are parts of the opinion that are favorable to the position of Good Shepherd. Secondly, the decision has absolutely no effect on the issues of fraud, collusion and bad faith for secular purposes that are presented in the two lawsuits brought by Father Moyer. Those lawsuits remain as a barrier to any attempt to move against the property. Thirdly, the decision resulted from the unique facts relating to St. James the Less. Their documents and the actions taken by St. James the Less are fundamentally different than the documents and actions of Good Shepherd."

As at the time of going to press, the diocese had not told Fr. Ousley that he must vacate the property. "We have not had contact with the diocese but we expect to be thrown out," said Fr. Ousley.



Dear Friends,

The Supreme Court decision in our case Has been posted. It went against us. The majority reversed the trial court finding that the property belongs to the Diocese, but concurred that there exists an implied trust in favor of the Diocese. This was based not on the Dennis canon, but on various factors in the situation prior to that time.

The majority opinon was written by Justice Nigro, and joined in by all the justices except Justice Newman. She wrote a concurring opinion, which concurred only in the ruling that the property belonged to the parish. She dissented on the existence of a trust, basing her argument primarily on the previous precedent (Beaver-Butler).

In effect, the majority has altered their standards of what constitutes an implied trust, abandoning the standard of Beaver-Butler. This gives us the faint comfort of knowing that under the Beaver-Butler standard, we would have retained the property. The bottom line is that the decision was based on factors specific to St James, and is not of immediate applicability to anyone else. It does not (so far as I can tell) resolve the question of whether the Dennis canon is sufficient to create a trust -- an issue which affects many Episcopal parishes. You can look up the opinions on the Supreme Court web page if you wish.

What happens next? Under the trial court ruling, the Diocese is now free to replace the vestry, and thereby take control of the parish. I don't know that I will find out how they wish to proceed until next week, with the holiday and all. They can also go to the Orphans Court to enforce the part of the ruling which calls for an accounting and assessment of damages against individual vestrymen (though only the four named vestry members, one of whom is now deceased, are immediately liable - JAA). We would hope that the Diocese will be committed to a smooth transition. . . .

I expect that for the next Sunday or two (or longer?) we will gather at coffee after the ten o'clock for updates, and discussion about the various practical matters before us. I plan to maintain the usual service schedule (and Bible study) as long as possible. This could change, however, on short notice, depending on what the Diocese chooses to do. One practical matter I will mention here. contributions to the Church of St James the Less from here on are subject to a trust in favor of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Parish funds remain with the property when we leave. I want you to be clear about your contributions when you make them.

This is, to put it mildly, a great disappointment. Being faithful to our principles has now cost us much that is dear. But the grace is before us to bear the Cross and follow Jesus -- as it always is. This is no doubt not the road we would have chosen, but we may be sure that God will turn the suffering to our good. This does not make the suffering any less painful. It does assure us that Jesus is bearing the greater part of the burden with us and for us.

Remember also that the church is the faithful, not the buildings. The court can take from us nothing that is essential to life -- or to Life. While some may have intended us ill, God desires only our good. I trust you will be sensitive to one another at this difficult time, and be ready to encourage one another.

It has been the sense of the parish that in this event, we would try to continue as a congregation, and we have made some contingency plans for the next steps. The vestry will be meeting . . . as soon possible. We will need to discern what plans God has for us, though we may be sure He has some. We can, even in the midst of sorrow, look forward with some anticipation to what He will do with us next. As always, we are to give thanks -- not for the evil of the situation, but because it is within God's providence. For that we can always be thankful, even when it contains the Cross.

--Fr David Ousley is the Anglo-Catholic rector of St. James the Less in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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