Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Litigation - The Diocese of Pittsburgh

Perhaps nowhere else in the United States has the battle over turf and assets been fought for as long as it has within the Diocese of Pittsburgh, led by the Rt. Rev. Robert W. Duncan. Immediately after the ratification of Bishop Robinson's election at GC 2003, a progressive parish and its progressive minister (Calvary Church, led by the Rev. Dr. Harold T. Lewis), who disagreed with Bishop Duncan's vote against the ratification, and who believed that Bishop Duncan was preparing actions that would remove the diocese from the larger Church, filed suit against the Bishop in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas in Pittsburgh. The suit ostensibly settled in October 2005 with an agreement that the diocese would keep all its assets intact, and would not allow individual parishes to depart from the diocese without paying fair market value for their property. Nevertheless, the new Presiding Bishop of ECUSA changed all that when she gave ear in 2007 to Calvary's further complaints about Bishop Duncan. (Calvary made the same charges in court, claiming that Bishop Duncan had violated the terms of the stipulation.) She referred Calvary's charges to the Title IV Review Committee, which duly rubber-stamped them and passed them back to her with a certification that they amounted to "abandonment of communion". However, because Bishop Duncan had not yet done anything overt towards leaving the Church, she could not get the consent of the three senior bishops in ECUSA to his inhibition.

Never one to let a thing like the language of the canons stop her, the Presiding Bishop announced she would bring a resolution to depose Bishop Duncan for "abandonment of communion" before the next meeting of the House of Bishops, in September 2008. (The Canon clearly says that only bishops who have first been inhibited are "liable to deposition.") A divided House, in which the great majority of those present showed their inability to read or understand simple English, voted in favor of the resolution. Then the Presiding Bishop, notwithstanding the fact that there were not enough bishops present and voting to carry the resolution in accordance with the terms of the Canon, announced nonetheless that she was signing a certificate of deposition, because she had already overruled in advance of the meeting any objection to the fact that there were not enough bishops voting.

After that display of collective arrogance, there was nothing for the Diocese of Pittsburgh to do except vote to leave the Church, which it did at its annual convention in October 2008. After joining the Province of the Southern Cone, the diocese then called a special convention at which it re-elected Robert Duncan as its Bishop. Following its now standard litigation strategy in such cases, the Presiding Bishop recognized the dissenters as the "Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh", and in that capacity they intervened in Calvary's lawsuit in order to claim title to all of the diocesan bank accounts and properties. ECUSA itself then intervened as well.

With all of the players in place, Calvary Church, the new "diocese" and ECUSA then brought a supplemental complaint to enforce the terms of the 2005 settlement, which they claimed had been breached when Bishop Duncan's diocese voted to leave ECUSA for the Southern Cone. After much briefing and jockeying, and a lengthy evidentiary hearing in which all of the participants testified about the negotiations which led to the settlement, the court took the matter under submission, and then ruled that the terms of the stipulation had indeed been breached. It ordered that Bishop Duncan's diocese turn over all its property to the new one (without, however, first checking to see if it had jurisdiction over the parties it ordered to turn over the assets). That order, and several of the court's prior rulings, was appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which in early February 2011 affirmed the trial court's order in all respects. Because of the amounts at stake (some $20 million in endowment funds), further appeals are likely.

All of these maneuvers and more are detailed and chronicled in the following posts.

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