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McKelvey v. Pierce

July 05, 2001


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, ATL-L- 1042-99.

Before Judges King, Coburn and Axelrad.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King, P.J.A.D.


Argued: May 23, 2001

This is an unprecedented action at common law for breach of a contract for education brought by a former Roman Catholic seminarian. He sues the Diocese of Camden (Diocese) and several of its priests claiming he was persistently subjected to unwanted homosexual advances during his eight to nine years of seminary training. He asserts that despite his complaints, his supervising priests and the Diocese did nothing to correct the situation. Plaintiff states "the core of [his] complaint is that he spent $69,000 and ten years of his life and does not have a meaningful career because his teachers and mentors behaved sexually inappropriately towards him and breached the contract for education." He does not seek reinstatement in the program but seeks money damages for his loss of time and out-of-pocket costs.

The Law Division judge dismissed his complaint. The judge concluded that entertaining plaintiff's action would violate the First Amendment's Religion Clauses, would require the court to intrude into church polity and administration, and would generate excessive entanglement of church and state. We agree and affirm.


On March 12, 1999 plaintiff filed suit in Superior Court, Law Division, Atlantic County, against defendants Rev. William C. Pierce, Rev. John T. Frey, Rev. William P. Brennan, Rev. Anthony J. Manuppella, the Estate of Rev. Msgr. William J. Buchler, and the Diocese of Camden, alleging breach of an implied contract by the creation of a hostile education and work environment, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for fraud and deceit. He demanded a jury trial. By court order on July 9, 1999 the complaint was dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, with plaintiff's right to file an amended complaint.

Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on August 13, 1999 alleging the same four causes of action. By court order on November 19, 1999 the complaint was again dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. On November 29, 1999 plaintiff filed a second amended complaint, again alleging the same four causes of action. Defendants demanded that plaintiff produce certain documents referred to in his new complaint. These documents were produced.

On March 24, 2000 the judge heard argument on defendants' motion to dismiss. By order of April 27, 2000 the judge denied the motion without prejudice, and ordered plaintiff to provide defendants with a new statement setting forth the basis for his claims and any correspondence to support the purported contract between the parties. Defendants were ordered to provide plaintiff with all pertinent correspondence contained in the files of the Diocese of Camden.

On June 29, 2000 the judge issued a written opinion granting defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's second amended complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The defense never filed an answer. The motion by defendants for judgment on the pleadings, R. 4:6-2(e), effectively became a motion for summary judgment. R. 4:46-2; see Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 4.1 on R. 4:6-2(e)(2001).


In January 1985 plaintiff made inquiry of the Diocese regarding his interest in becoming a Roman Catholic priest. Plaintiff was provided with a brochure entitled "The Diocesan Priesthood." On the title page of this brochure, this quote from the Acts of the Apostles appeared: "You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit. . . you will be my witness."

The second page of the brochure is separated into portions entitled "To be," "To hear," "To live," and "To serve." The brochure stated that a diocesan priest in the Roman Catholic Church is one particular calling that Christian men may choose as their way of responding to and living their belief in Jesus Christ. Hearing the call of the Lord is to experience a deep and personal stirring within oneself. "In proclaiming God's Word, celebrating the sacraments, living as a public witness of Jesus and shepherding the People of God with care and compassion, the diocesan priest seeks to follow the Lord Who came 'as One Who serves.'" To live as a diocesan priest, an individual is challenged to model his life on Jesus. The diocesan priest is celibate, yet "stands at the heart of the Catholic family." The celibate lifestyle "reminds him that his deepest meaning and fulfillment is found in relationship to the Lord." "The ministry of the diocesan priest is to lead and empower the community through a life which gives witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

The brochure also describes the application process.

During the time of application, "prudent sensitivity" is employed in order to respect the power of the Holy Spirit in a person's life. The described Revised Code of Canon Law suggests that each applicant for the priesthood meet certain minimum requirements in the area of spirituality, motivation, intelligence, physical and emotional health, and the capacity to relate to others.

Following an initial meeting with the Vocation Director of the Diocese, an applicant completes an application form and submits written recommendations, ecclesiastical records, academic transcripts, and the results of psychological and physical examinations. The applicant would then meet with four members of the Vocation Office Advisory Board, after which a recommendation would be made to the Bishop.

If the applicant is a viable candidate, he is assigned to a place of study in a formation program in a seminary. Seminary life is intended as a time of "vital, dynamic growth and development." The goal of the seminary is to form true pastors of the People of God after the model of Our Lord Jesus Christ. At the four-year college level, the seminary assists a person to mature as a liberally-educated human being. A college seminarian is invited to ...

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