I was passed an intriguing post by Fr Alexander Lebedeff concerning civil suits against the Church. I find it interesting, but, there was something that bothered me about it. I sent it to a lawyer-friend, who said that it was obvious that it had been written by a non-lawyer with no knowledge or experience of non-profit corporation law or case-histories. That is, any comments that follow are not personal attacks on Fr Alexander, but, I do fear that he did not take his logic far enough… but, bear in mind that Fr Alexander is not speaking as a lawyer, but, as a canonist. The comments as given could be construed by some as meaning that the Church is immune from legal action by its parishioners. I doubt that Fr Alexander meant that, God willing.
Here is Fr Alexander’s comment, in toto:
Re: Confessional Confidentiality
First of all, I want to make it clear I am not talking about the specifics of any particular matter, but as a matter of principle, so I ask that people please do not respond with rebuttals based on a specific case.
I believe most sincerely that it is morally and ethically wrong for a priest to reveal anything that was confessed to him. The Russian Orthodox Church has a clear position on this issue, and those who violate the sacred obligation of the priestly office to hold confessions in strictest confidence should be brought to account before the Spiritual Authorities and receive appropriate ecclesiastical punishment.
At the same time, I believe most sincerely that it is also morally and ethically wrong to sue the Church in civil courts for monetary damages based on allegations of misbehavior by a priest of the Church.
People donate money to the Church in order that it may be spent on the legitimate needs of the Church: the upkeep and maintenance of Church buildings and property; the compensation of clergy; construction and remodeling of church buildings; beautification of the church; supporting the educational, missionary and pastoral activities of the Church and its charitable work (helping the poor and the homeless), and other worthy needs.
These do not include paying out millions of dollars in monetary compensation to individual parishioners (and their attorneys). Does a elderly widow donate her “widow’s mite” to the Church, or for the benefit of an individual parishioner and his or her attorneys?
This applies to all donors, rich or poor, both those who give large sums and those who donate a little. All expect that the money will be used for legitimate Church purposes. This is, in reality, a trust or a covenant in which the Church accepts the money with the promise that it will be used exclusively for the legitimate work of the Church.
Doing otherwise is a violation of this trust, and seems to me to actually be something expressed in the legal concept of “conversion.” Money donated to the Church for its legitimate needs is instead “converted” to money to be paid out for the financial benefit of an individual parishioner (and his or her attorneys).
Under the principles of Non-Profit Law, I wonder: can monies donated to the Non-Profit (as a charitable, non-taxable gift) then be converted to the financial benefit of an individual (other than reasonable compensation for work performed)?.
If a civilian commits a civil crime, he should be tried in a civil court. If a clergyman commits an ecclesiastical crime, he should be tried in an ecclesiastical court.
No one should be able to sue the Church for compensatory or punitive damages, because the Church’s money is not its own. That money was donated to the Church to be used for legitimate Church activity—and not to inure to the financial benefit of any individual or his or her attorneys.
One could even imagine that a person receiving monetary compensation in the form of compensatory or punitive damages as the result of a lawsuit against the Church could then be sued by the other parishioners of the Church for benefiting from the diversion of donations to something other than what the donors intended the money to be used for.
With love in Christ,
Prot. Alexander Lebedeff
(The above was cut-and-pasted EXACTLY as I received it, as I have no URL available for a trackback).
There are more questions raised by the above than are answered… but, that may have been Fr Alexander’s intent! For instance, if a clergyman commits a secular crime, if one follows Fr Alexander’s logic, then, he must be tried in a secular court. That is, if a priest commits an offence against the Church, its canons, or customary practise, he should only be tried in an ecclesiastical court. If a priest commits a crime against the statutory code, such as extortion, credit-card fraud, or destruction of corporate records, then, he would be liable under the civil code. I see this distinction implicit in Fr Alexander’s argument… I mention this because some people are going to (falsely) accuse Fr Alexander of saying that the clergy are immune from civil action for their secular actions. I find that particular accusation specious.
Furthermore, there is another argument implicit in Fr Alexander’s reasoning that I believe that many shall miss. If money is given for the legitimate purposes of the Church, then, what remedy does the Church have for clergy who divert those funds for personal use? It is left unsaid explicitly, but, it appears clear that the Church and its parishioners can seek redress in the civil courts. What does one do if Church funds are misused, for instance, for a gambling trip to Las Vegas? This is not only an offence against morality; it is a statutory felony… extortion. This question, “Under the principles of Non-Profit Law, I wonder: can monies donated to the Non-Profit (as a charitable, non-taxable gift) then be converted to the financial benefit of an individual (other than reasonable compensation for work performed)?” applies to some well-known real-world examples that Fr Alexander did not enumerate, as they are still unresolved (nor am I implying that he was cowardly… it was not his place to comment freely on the matters involved. Fr Alexander is a public figure, which means that he is limited in his expression at times, and there are those who do not take that into account).
Fr Alexander does make it crystal-clear that he believes that any priest who violates pastoral confidentiality should be disciplined harshly by the bishop involved. Make no mistake on that score. However, it is clear that, in some high-profile cases, such justice has been denied via Church sources. I am not accusing Fr Alexander, nevertheless, I ask this question, “What does one do when the priest involved is not disciplined, but, rather, is rewarded and given high church office?“ There is a well-known case that I shall not cite… however, what does a parishioner do when such justice is denied? This was not stated explicitly… this is one of the areas that remain a question… again; this may have been Fr Alexander’s intent, to force us to think on the matter.
Actually, to my mind, this post is less about legal action than it is about money and its role in the Church. Fr Alexander makes it clear what he believes are legitimate uses of funds donated to the Church. Implicit in this is an argument that those who use Church funds for any other reason are criminals and must be treated as such, for such people have abused not only the monies of the Church, but, the parishioners’ trust as well. Ergo, if one reasons from this basis (if I understand the thrust of Fr Alexander’s argument correctly), extortion of Church funds is not only a felony punishable under the statutory law, it is a moral offence that can be remedied by ecclesiastical courts. Thus, one can not only seek redress in the civil law courts, but, also, seek justice in the ecclesiastical court, as well.
As for suits… I am no lawyer! However, the Church is not only the Body of Christ, it is a civil not-for-profit corporation licensed under the laws of the various states and provinces. As a canonist, Fr Alexander was not addressing that side of the issue… he was discussing the canons, quite a different subject. Is there any Orthodox lawyer out there who can address this question as secular jurisprudence has it? I think that not only I, but, Fr Alexander, as well, would welcome such a voice.
A note to Fr Alexander:
I fear that some shall not give your submission the proper time and attention it deserves. In addition, some shall not understand that you are speaking as a canonist, not an attorney/solicitor. Your post was meant to stimulate additional questions and thought… it certainly did so in my case! Thank you.
Thursday 15 October 2009
Someone was kind enough to send me the trackback for the post. Thank you!