Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Priest's Lawsuit Against Diocese
Court rules that it cannot resolve the case.
New Jersey

A New Jersey appeals court ruled that it had no authority to resolve a lawsuit brought by a priest against his diocese. A Catholic priest was arrested and charged with several sexual offenses involving a minor. Two days later, he was suspended from all priestly functions by his bishop. The priest later sued his bishop and diocese, claiming that the bishop had breached a promise to pay for all legal fees incurred in his defense. He sought $2.5 million in damages. A state appeals court ruled that it had no authority to resolve such a dispute. It acknowledged that "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." The priest argued that this was such a case, since the court need only apply neutral principles of contract law to determine whether or not the bishop made a commitment (to pay legal fees) that he did not honor. The court rejected the priest's assessment of the case, noting that it "ignores the relationship between the parties." It observed:

[The priest] relies both on [the bishop'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 an 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 …. Accordingly, a determination of [the priest's] claims would involve more than simply the secular questions of whether such promises were made and subsequently dishonored.

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Posted: March 2, 1992
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