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Does the Roman Catholic Church Get Good Legal Advice?

While the title of the post is somewhat incendiary and the Church’s lawyers did not cause the Church's liability problems, I wonder if their lawyers have added to the woes.  A bankruptcy judge in Spokane held that the property of local Catholic parishes belong to the Bishop and could thus be attached to satisfy judgments against the Bishop. (See Walter’s note and Amy Welborn’s note.)  The contrasting opinion is that the churches (plus buildings, schools, and cemeteries) belong to the local parishes which raised the money to build them, or alternatively  the bishop is a mere trustee for the parishes and does not actually own the property.  Why was the legal focus on putting the title in the bishops’ names rather than the local parishes?  It is not as if the bishops have a great fear of parishes bolting to another sect of Christianity.  Good risk management would suggest putting the corporation at the level of the parish. 

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fargo is being sued by a former employee because of apparent discriminatory treatment between men and women.  (See Amy Welborn and comments) A woman was fired for having an inappropriate relationship, but priests in similar situations allegedly were not.  The legal distinction is that while the woman was an employee, the priest is an independent contractor.  One of many parts of the common law test for whether a person is an employee is based upon the amount of control the principal has over the person in question.  Any one who makes a vow of obedience is a strong candidate for agencyhood (if not sainthood!).  It is hard to claim that priests have complete control over their jobs as the bishops assign them to the various parishes and give them jobs at those parishes.  The agent-priests may have some discretion over certain aspects of their job, but the bishop technically has tremendous authority over them and how they do their jobs.  The fact that the church routinely calls its priests independent contractors seems to have a tax purpose and this label can not necessarily be employed for liability purposes.   One would think that this is the kind of advice that would be given by the Church’s lawyers.

Next we have the Archbishop of San Francisco, in legal documents (it is not clear whether he saw them), claiming that his former diocese should not be responsible for a woman’s pregnancy by a seminarian because the woman engaged in unprotected sex. (Mercury News)  A number of good legal reasons exist to avoid liability here which do not undermine the Church’s teaching are available.  Why do we see the silly one?

Finally, Canon law is often brought into these arguments and seems to confuse the issue, but this really shouldn’t be a problem one way or the other as courts routinely overlook private arrangements regarding liability to others for injuries or harms as the injured party was not part of the contract. (See Walter’s other note here).  Finally, for those intrepid souls that are not tired of church property disputes, here is one more involving a conservative episcopal parish in Newport Beach fighting to keep its assets from the Episcopal Diocese of L.A. (via Mirror of Justice)



Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.