The Roman Catholic Church and Lawsuits
The Law Knows no Heresy:
A Review of Judicial Involvement in Church Disputes
A Review of Judicial Involvement in Church Disputes
The judicial eye of the civil authority of this land of religious liberty cannot penetrate the veil of the church, nor can the arm of the court either rend or touch that veil for the forbidden purpose of vindicating the alleged wrongs of its members. Shannon v. Frost , 42 Ky. 253 (1842).
The Church has always taught “pray, pay and obey.” What the Suffolk grand jury has said is that now the church should pray, pay and obey the laws of this land.”
In response to the recent onslaught of hundreds of civil sex abuse claims brought by parishioners against clergy in various archdioceses, church authorities submitted the following request to the relevant superior courts, which for years prior had constituted a reasonable ecclesiastical disclaimer within the jurisdiction and without: dismiss all claims, because the First Amendment bars courts from interfering with church operations and policies. In the ensuing legal battles which followed this request, defendants and plaintiffs alike have found ammunition in century-old case law over this request to dismiss serious tort claims of damages to minors because of ecclesiastical immunity and autonomy.
The plaintiffs have complained that church officials failed to exercise their doctrinally- guaranteed supervisory authority to properly monitor offending priests within the church. Canon law provides an established but highly discretionary procedure for internal self- discipline of miscreant officials, whereby all internal complaints are submitted to the personal determination of bishops and, where necessary, the decisions of church judicatories. Clerics and church officials have never been required to report suspected abuses to civil authorities. The application of such autonomous authority to the present situation has provoked plaintiffs to bring charges of deception, intimidation, fraud, tortuous negligence, and even criminal complicity against dozens of diocesan bishops who consistently entertained complaints alleging sex abuse of minors which were brought by both parishioners and clergy. These bishops then refused to turn the alleged offenders over to civil justice.
In most cases, when faced with the problem of dealing with the proven sex offenses of a parish priest, the supervisory bishop would deal with the matter by merely settling with the victim and his family, and then quietly handed the offending priest over to counselors and rehabilitation programs. The offending priest would frequently return to ministry in another parish, without disclosure of past offenses ever having been made by his responsible supervisors. In many cases, suspected priests continued to molest minors while under the supervision of their bishops. In response to the claims alleging that such conduct constituted gross negligence or even criminal complicity, church authorities simply continued to assert their constitutional privilege to exercise their exclusive jurisdiction over problems within the church, with total immunity from judicial review.
Plaintiff lawyers have asserted that church officials are attempting to “hide behind canon law” and find protection in “the church’s culture of silence.” Plaintiff lawyers also referred to several recent state court decisions, in which the court found that neither the doctrine of separation of church and state, nor The Free Exercise Clause’s requirement of state deference to matters of religious belief could protect the conduct of church supervisors or priests from civil judgment.
On the other hand, defendant church lawyers have referred to a much older body of case law, arguing that the court does not have jurisdiction over those cases which involve the relationship between a church supervisor and a priest, because such a relationship is undisputedly and inextricably linked to church doctrine, and thus is protected by the First Amendment.
The attorneys’ use of conflicting precedent reflects an historical struggle for religious freedom and church autonomy. It has been suggested that the recent accusations against the Roman Catholic Church for alleged sex abuse and internal negligence is one of the most striking examples of the historical tension between the judiciary and the church ever encountered in America. Each side of the dispute refers to precedent in its favor: on the one hand, judicial permission to review ecclesiastical conduct and procedure, and on the other, absolute church autonomy. This paper will describe the scope of judicial review of church disputes in U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and will conclude by assessing the recent adjudications involving claims against the Catholic Church.
State Court PrecedentWhen it turned to Massachusetts Judge Constance Sweeney to determine whether the church might be held civilly liable for shielding clerical tortfeasors from legal review, the court consolidated various broad precedents. The court finally ordered the church to turn over internal documents for review by plaintiff lawyers, and entertained the legal issue of whether the church had complied with its own policies in properly monitoring problem priests. The judge ultimately ruled that in the case at hane, the ecclesiastical misconduct of parish priests and bishops was not protected under the First Amendment. This was because the claims at issue did not involve internal church disputes, but rather turned on claims made by third parties against church officials for their alleged negligence in their duty to supervise priests whom they reasonably believed or knew to have sexually abused children. The judge concluded that judicial review of tort claims against priests and their supervisors was constitutionally permissible in this case because the cases did not lure the court into involvement in church doctrine, faith, internal organization or discipline; rather, the case merely presented issues which were civilly judiciable according to neutral principles of law.
However, the judge isolated and dismissed those claims within the same case which alleged 1) negligence of bishops in their ordination of a priest and 2) failure to remove a priest from the priesthood. The Judge reasoned that such matters were “purely ecclesiastical,” in that they arose from religious doctrine, and were thus to be protected from judicial scrutiny .
Broadly stated, the following rules comprise the body of law which the United States Supreme Court has established for governing judicial involvement in church disputes. A civil court is both prohibited from making “religious decisions” and from deciding which of several competing “religious decisions” is correct.
Courts may not interfere in matters of church doctrine, discipline, or polity. (Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 1871). The First Amendment prohibits civil courts from awarding church property on the basis of judicial interpretation of church doctrine (Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 1969), but civil courts may resolve church property disputes wherever the determination does not involve inquiry into church doctrine. Maryland & Virginia Eldership of Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, 396 U.S. 367 1970). Civil courts may never probe into church polity with regard to the removal of clerics. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of America and Canada v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 1976). Finally, however, notwithstanding the limitations imposed on the courts by the above decisions, a court may, at its option, utilize neutral principles of law to adjudicate church property disputes. (Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 1979).
Permissible Judicial InvolvementWith regard to recent adjudication, the current application of the law to claims arising from church order has required the court to carefully review federal and state precedents. Although these precedents tend to reflect the historically problematic confusion of roles between church and state (as will be discussed later in this paper), the operative line of demarcation between permissible and impermissible involvement is definately ascertainable, and has been demonstrated in such recent holdings as that of Judge Sweeney’s: where a dispute turns on purely ecclesiastical matters, or where a cause of action arises from a dispute over internal doctrine, faith, organization or discipline, judicial involvement not permissible. On the other hand, where a party brings suit to enforce a cognizable civil right, to which neutral principles of law can attach, then judicial review may be permissible.
In those cases where the court’s dividing line may not be so clearly drawn between “purely” religious or “purely” secular matters, the court’s initial review is limited to a selective separation of religious issues from secular issues. Following this initial differentiation, the court will adjudicate only those secular issues which can be determined according to civil law. The civil courts are to leave any matter of faith strictly alone, and where a matter of faith has already been decided by the appropriate ecclesiastical body, the court must defer to the ecclesiastical decision- even where the religious decision may affect the civil issues involved.
Thus the legal line which divides between permissible and impermissible judicial intervention falls between faith and civil action. Where a cause of action implicates a purely civil claim, the court may intervene, regardless of the fact that an involved party happens to be a church or a cleric. On the other hand, where a cause of action implicates a purely religious matter, the court may not intervene, but must leave the matter to the resolution of the religious body in which the matter arises. Accordingly, though the Catholic church has been found liable for the sex offenses of its clerics, no legal fault has been attributed to the church’s policies and procedures for refraining to review or remove its sexual offenders, because the church’s policy and procedure is essentially founded upon its religious belief.
Courts have thus referred to two governing principles in their adjudication of church disputes. The first principle is the principle of association. This principle justifies church autonomy in resolving its own disputes, on the theory that all who unite themselves in a single ecclesiastical body implicitly consent to submit to its government and internal adjudication of disputes. (Gonzalez v Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1, 9 1929).
The second principle, of particular interest in discussing the recent scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, is the trend of judicial deference to a church governed by a hierarchical system. Courts make a distinction between hierarchical churches and congregational churches because the law regards hierarchical churches as legal entities governed by the law of corporations, while local congregations are afforded only the diminished legal protection afforded to voluntary associations. By extension, courts also defer to this congregational/hierarchical distinction in locating the government of a church. For instance: In a congregational church, authority for internal adjudication is located in the majority of the congregation. On the other hand, where a church is found to be part of an ecclesiastical hierarchy-in that it constitutes a subordinate part of a general religious organization with established tribunals for ecclesiastical government, courts allow those tribunals to decide all questions of faith, discipline, rule, custom and ecclesiastical government on their own. Thus historically, where the (civil) rights implicated in a dispute depended on questions of ecclesiastical rule, the civil court considered the decision of the highest tribunal of the church to be conclusive, and governed its civil decision accordingly.
Tort CasesThese principles have been applied in tort cases involving facts similar to the causes of action names in the current accusations against the Catholic Church. Late in the 20th century, American courts were still limited by the relatively simple parameters of the Watson Doctrine of 1871: courts might not interfere in matters of church doctrine, discipline, or polity. This legal doctrine left civil courts with only a limited role to play in reviewing ecclesiastical decisions. However, in a landmark case of 1929, the court permitted the “marginal civil review” of those claims which challenged the decisions of ecclesiastical tribunals that were allegedly influenced by tortuous fraud, collusion or arbitrariness. (Gonzalez v. Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1 1929). The plaintiff in this case brought suit claiming entitlement to a chaplaincy position, which had allegedly been denied to him arbitrarily and without good cause. The lower court originally held that the plaintiff’s claim was invalid because the church’s decision as to whether the candidate possessed the necessary qualifications for a chaplaincy lay exclusively within the jurisdiction of the appropriate ecclesiastical court.
However, the higher court ultimately did not defer to the decision of the ecclesiastical court. The court found that the decisions of the church were arbitrary because the church had not followed its own laws and procedures in arriving at its decision. The higher court also justified its intervention because it found that the plaintiff’s cause of action involved a secular issue of employment law, to which neutral principles of civil law could easily attach for civil adjudication.
The higher court ultimately exercised a liberal amount of intervention when it ordered the archbishop to accept the plaintiff candidate into the priesthood. Although the law has held that in the absence of wrongdoing, the decisions of the proper church tribunals on such purely ecclesiastical matters as the qualifications of the clergy, regardless of secular rights, must be accepted by the secular courts as conclusive, the court reasoned that arbitrariness in an ecclesiastical decision was nevertheless sufficient to undo a presumption of deference to the ecclesiastical court.
The court exercised more limited review in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976), in which the court held that inquiry into the procedures or substance of canon law is never the constitutional province of the court, especially with regard to the removal of clerics. The court was faced with the claim of a priest against the supreme synod of a Greek Orthodox Church for their decision to defrock him and remove him from his office on grounds of schismatic and insubordinate teaching. The court reiterated the general rule that religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry. The plaintiff claimed that the church had removed him from his office by means which were procedurally and substantively defective under the church’s own regulations. After conducting a “detailed review” of the church’s decision, the lower court held that the plaintiff’s removal was arbitrary and thus had to be set aside.
The United States Supreme Court, on the other hand, ultimately reversed the lower court’s decision because its probe into ecclesiastical deliberation seemed too much like an unconstitutional attempt to decide religious law. The Court reasoned that “all of the decisions of the (supreme synod) in regard to faith, officiation, church order and internal organization are valid and final,” and that the First Amendment absolutely permits hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules for discipline and government, and to create authoritative tribunals for adjudicating dispute over these matters. The Court went on to insist that when this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept ecclesial decisions as binding.
Finally, the Court applied traditional principles of association in reasoning that the priest was bound by the decision of his superiors and by his own religious oath of obedience to them, and thus had no legal recourse against their decision because of the legal principle that “persons who have contractually bound themselves to adhere to the decisions of the ruling hierarchy in a private association may not obtain relief from those decisions in a civil court.”
The Serbian court chastised the state court for its “fatal fallacy” in rejecting the decision of the church’s tribunal, and impermissibly imposing its own inquiry and interpretation onto church polity. The Court’s final decision stated that the polity of the church was to be reviewed and interpreted by the church alone; thus the lower court’s decision was overturned precisely because it had conducted an impermissible “detailed review” of church law. Furthermore, the Court referred to the fact that church judicatories are often guided by inconsistent canonical sources other than law per se, and thus the civil courts, being versed in civil law, are not qualified to “re write church law.” Here, the general effect of the Court’s language seems to create a prohibition against revues of church law in general, regardless of the “level” or “detail” of the civil scrutiny involved.
In sum: the Supreme Court has followed the restrictions of Serbian in ensuing cases. In particular, the Court has held that where claims relate to the status and employment of a priest, such claims “go to the heart” of internal church discipline, faith, and organization, thus constituting issues which the Court may not adjudicate. The Court has allowed that there may be some secular aspects of clerical employment which might be acceptable matter for judicial review. However, the Court has most frequently held that because of the particularly sensitive role which the clergy play in the church, evaluations of clergy performance are not rightly subject to judicial review because such evaluations relate only to religion; and purely religious controversies are never the proper subject of civil court inquiry. Furthermore, awhere an ecclesiastical court has already adjudicated a religious matter, a civil court must accept the ecclesiastical decisions of church tribunals, and the civil implications therein, as it finds them.
Tort cases, such as those surfacing in the current situation, also adhered closely to the doctrine of non interference in the prior decisions of church authorities, because of the presumption of consent by all church members who had submitted to the ecclesiastical government of the church, and because of the propriety of applying principles of canon law in controversies which grew out of canonical relationships. Furthermore, courts have almost always held that deference to ecclesiastical authority was always appropriate where the role and status of a priest was involved.
Critical ExceptionsIn regards to recent adjudication of sexual tort claims against clergy, the following cases are instructive.
As early as 1890, the court established a trend of significant intervention in torts cases in deciding Morasse v. Brochu. The court adjudicated the claims of a parishioner against his priest for slander when the defendant priest allegedly accused the plaintiff of violating the rules of the church, and then urged other parishioners to avoid associating with him. Having found the actionable elements of slander in the facts which the plaintiff alleged, the court simply applied elements of tort law to the issues of the case, and found that the defendant priest was guilty. Similarly, in Destafano v. Grabrian, (1986) where a priest engaged in an adulterous relationship with a married woman to whom he provided pastoral counsel, the court held that the mere fact that the defendant was a priest could not shield him from tort liability for alienation of affections. Nor was the court inhibited by the fact that the cause of action arose during the performance of a clerical duty.
Finally, we arrive at the most recent adjudications of church disputes, in which the court has justified its involvement by heavy reliance on the doctrine of the protection of belief- rather than action paradigm, and on the presence of third party intervention in the cases. Because of factual similarities, theses cases are most relevant to the trends as they are applied in recent sex abuse claims. In 1999, the court decided against the clergy in Mendez v. Geoghan, in which parishioner parents brought a claim of sexual abuse against the church on behalf of their children. The parents sued the defendant priest’s clerical supervisors on the grounds that they had negligently allowed the priest to abuse children while under their control. The court held that while the state courts could not intervene in religious disputes, and while no cause of action could be asserted for negligent clerical training, the court retained power to make appropriate civil determinations on the purely secular tort of sex abuse, even though the defendants were clerics.
The court relied on the principle that the freedom to believe remains absolute, and extends protection to essentially religious conduct such as religious training, or the ordination or removal of a cleric. On the other hand, the court reasoned that the interest of protecting society requires that the freedom to act in a religious context be limited by civil law. Accordingly, the court found that the supervisory defendants were not immune from civil liability for directing or permitting defendant priest to do something or to engage in some activity which they knew or should have known would expose third parties to grave or unseen dangers. The court added that the historical principle of church autonomy does not mean that all the consequences of the relationship between and among members of the clergy are beyond judicial scrutiny. The court noted additional justification for scrutiny where the clerical relationship tolerated harm of third parties.
In the following year, the court decided an almost identical case in Leary v. Geoghan, this time addressing the plaintiff’s personal claims of negligence, clerical malpractice, and breach of fiduciary duty against his clerical supervisors. When the defendants claimed immunity, the court denied, again holding that clerics are not immune from liability when they have directed or permitted a subordinate to do something which they knew or should have known would have caused harm to a third party. The court noted that under state law and the Constitution, the court was prohibited from making religious decisions and from deciding which of several competing religious decisions was correct.
Furthermore, the court recognized that the assessment of a priest’s ministerial qualifications constituted a purely ecclesiastical matter entitled to constitutional protection against judicial interference. However, the court referred to its prior decision that not all of the consequences of relationships among members of the clergy are beyond judicial scrutiny, particularly those which affect third parties. The Leary court went on to add that the mere presence of doctrinal implications in a given situation is not always sufficient to immunize priestly conduct from the censor of civil law. Furthermore, the court noted that while civil courts are required to accept the church’s interpretation of religious doctrine, courts are not prohibited from making appropriate determinations where the application of the doctrinal interpretation has resulted in civil harm, as where the doctrinally-based authoritative judgment of a bishop permits the continued abuse of children. Once again, the court referred to effect on third parties and applicability of neutral principles of law as justifications for judicial involvement.
Diminished DeferenceAround the turn of the century, courts began to give less deference to church authority. In Barkely v. Hayes, (1913) the court did not demur to intervene even though the parties brought an action based on a set of property claims arising directly from specific doctrinal differences. The Barkley court referred to a state decision in Boyles v. Roberts, (1908) which held that where civil property rights were involved, the court was not required to register the decrees of the church as its own. Rather, the court might investigate for itself any relevant ecclesiastical matter, even those matters relating to faith and doctrine. Thus if in determining the civil or property rights of the parties it became necessary for the court to investigate a church’s articles of faith or the written documents of its judicatories, such investigation was lawful, even to the extent of determining whether church judicatories had attributed the correct meaning to their own articles.
The Barkley holding discredited the earlier Watson doctrine, and reflected a trend which permitted the court to inquire into the content of the religious faith or practice of the parties where civil causes of action were asserted. The Barkley court explicitly reserved authority to review ecclesiastical matters by applying principles which allowed that after undertaking review of church polity, the court might state that the decisions of the supreme judicatory of the church were not conclusive upon the courts when they were in defiance and express violation of the constitution of the body itself. Furthermore, if the civil court found that church judicatories had proceeded palpably without jurisdiction, neither church members nor the civil courts should be required to respect their decisions.
Following this interlude of increasing judicial involvement in church disputes, Presbyterian Church v. Hull created a new landmark in 1969. The court returned to its Watson holding when faced with the issue of whether constitutional restraints permitted a civil court to award church property to a congregational faction on the basis of the civil court’s interpretation of church doctrine. The plaintiffs claimed violations of their rights arising from the church’s departures from its original tenets of faith and practice. The jury in the case was instructed to apply a “Departure from Doctrine” standard in assessing whether the actions of the church amounted to an abandonment of its original doctrines. The Supreme Court overturned this decision, reasoning that a civil court could not review a church’s departure from its own doctrine, because such review necessarily required civil courts to engage in a forbidden weighing of the significance and meaning of religious doctrine. The Supreme Court determined that civil courts have no constitutional role in determining ecclesiastical questions implicated in church disputes, and that the lower courts had violated the First Amendment by applying the departure from doctrine standard of review.
These principles were later qualified by a fundamental principle announced later in Jones v. Wolf, which held that a state court is constitutionally entitled to employ neutral principles of law to adjudicate a church dispute. Under this approach, a civil court is permitted to intervene in a church dispute at the following levels: a court might adopt one of various legal approaches for settling a church dispute, so long as its approach involved no consideration of doctrinal matters. Furthermore, a civil court might evaluate and review the governing documents of a church in reaching its decision, but that the court must take special care to scrutinize the document in purely secular terms, without reliance on religious precepts. Finally, if the interpretations of a matter would require the court to resolve a religious controversy, then the court still had to defer to the decision of the ecclesiastical body.
The Kedroff court also crystallized several other modern principles of jurisprudence in church disputes: 1) that of extreme circumscription in ecclesiastical matters; 2) that while neutral principles of law might be applied for use in church disputes, the First Amendment requires courts to avoid reviewing underlying controversies over religious doctrine, thus making it necessary for the court to structure issues so as to prevent the civil courts from dabbling in ecclesiastical questions.
Finally, courts have held to the doctrine that civil courts are prohibited from inquiring whether church authorities have properly exercised their power under religious law, since such probes into the allocation and procedure of ecclesiastical power necessitate the interpretation of ambiguous religious law and usage. Nonetheless, the courts have concluded that a state might adopt any one of various approaches for settling church disputes so long as the approach avoided consideration of doctrinal matters.
Conclusion:The consistent question throughout the history of church disputes has considered whether and at what point the court may intervene in the dealings of a religious association of members who have bound themselves together under the non-coercive law of their religious denomination. In the recent church disputes involving the Catholic Church, the court’s decision as to procedure and judgment on the merits has in effect pronounced answers to that question, as follows.
Whether and When to Intervene
Whether and When to Intervene
In the first place, the court may intervene in those church disputes which do not turn explicitly upon religious doctrine, faith, internal organization, or discipline. For instance: the court may intervene in a church dispute which alleges wrongful conduct by a cleric acting in his clerical capacity. Although the nature of his clerical office necessarily implicates doctrine, faith, and internal organization, doctrine and faith cannot protect him from the judicial scrutiny of his wrongful conduct where secular law provides a remedy. This is especially the case where a third party to the harm brings an action to address clerical wrongdoing; in such cases, the court seems to find that ecclesiastical immunity diminishes because the “internal” nature of the dispute has been broached by third party intervention.
On the other hand, the court does not presume to review the ordination, supervisory tolerance, or removal of a priest by his ecclesiastical authorities, because such inquiry goes to the heart of religious doctrine. Thus any clerical immunity from tort actions pertains to clerical status, but not to clerical conduct.
Finally, the civil courts may intervene when church members have alleged that the church has not adhered to its own procedures for correcting alleged wrongdoing, as evidenced by review of internal church doctrines for procedural integrity and compliance with internal policies. As in corporate law and contract law, where the court finds clear terms of agreement as to established procedure, the court will act to enforce those terms, but will generally refrain from supplying new terms. Thus the court will enforce the internal adjudication of a church where the church’s authority structure has already spoken. However, where the internal adjudication of a church has defied good faith by employing arbitrariness or collusion, or has tolerated criminal conduct, the court will intervene.
In conclusion, it seems that recent decisions have adhered closely to jurisdictional precedent as to the “whether and when” of judicial intervention in church disputes. The court’s permissive intervention in those church disputes which do not turn upon religious doctrine, faith, internal organization, or discipline seems to reflect a compromise between a posture of intervention on the one hand, and one of deference to the internal ordering of ecclesiastical relationships on the other. Furthermore, the court’s recognition of a distinct civil cause of action in ecclesiastical matters reflects the court’s practice of drawing a distinction between purely religious issues and personal rights, and the ensuing application of “neutral principles of law” to those secular issues. Finally, consistent decisions allow modern courts to protect freedom of religious belief by avoiding review of the removal of clerics, while limiting freedom of religiously motivated action by imposing liability for secular torts.
The courts have exercised consistency in the level of intervention permitted in tort claims, and the recent court decisions have reflected this consistency. The court’s disregard for religious immunity in a tortuous cause of action derives from the extensive review permitted in cases more than a century old.