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McElroy v. Guilfoyle

Decided: November 14, 1990.

JOHN MCELROY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
GEORGE GUILFOYLE, JAMES MCHUGH AND CAMDEN DIOCESE, JOINTLY, SEVERALLY, ALTERNATIVELY, DEFENDANTS



Drozdowski, J.s.c.

Drozdowski

This is defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint under R. 4:6-2(a) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Plaintiff, a priest and former pastor of St. Francis de Sales church in Barrington, brought this action against defendants, the former and present bishops of defendant Diocese, seeking to recover compensatory and punitive damages as a result of defendants' alleged promise to pay plaintiff's legal fees incurred in plaintiff's defense of an unrelated criminal action. Plaintiff's claims are presented under a variety of diverse theories, including "breach of contract and/or a breach of canon [ sic ] code and/or an intentional tort and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress."

Defendants move to strike arguing that civil courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims. Specifically defendants contend that plaintiff's claims are barred from civil court resolution by the First Amendment Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses since the issues presented require impermissible court inquiry into church doctrine and practice.

I.

This case introduces novel questions concerning the jurisdiction of secular courts over disputes between a church and its clergy members. For the reasons set forth below, I find that this court lacks jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims.

On March 9, 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. On May 11, 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. On October 14, 1989, plaintiff was convicted of the aforementioned charges. That matter is now on appeal.

On May 8, 1990, plaintiff filed his complaint against defendants George Guilfoyle, James McHugh and the Diocese of Camden. The vagueness of plaintiff's claims necessitated limited discovery in order to clarify the gravamen of the complaint. Plaintiff's allegations are now clear. 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, in his certification, 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.

II.

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. Chavis v. Rowe, 93 N.J. 103, 109, 459 A.2d 674 (1983). More specifically, 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. Minker v. Baltimore Annual Conference, 894 F.2d 1354, 1357 (D.C.Cir.1990).

However, temporal matters of a church affecting civil, contract or property rights may be ...


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