Ellen Cooke. Felon, crook.

Another blog post in my church series.

I don’t know how many people outside of Episcopalianism even remember this one, but the Ellen Cooke above was the Treasurer of the American Episcopal Church. This was maybe during the 1980’s and ending abruptly around 1995.

She stole two million dollars from the denomination. Almost all for personal use.

Because the denomination did not have proper internal controls, this went on, undiscovered, for years.

The CPA in me still makes me shake my head about it. It’s kind of like the Bernie Madoff of religious societies, this story. Ol’ Ellen did five years’ time in a Virginia prison for it.

As it turns out, I actually had a chance dealing with Mrs. Cooke when I needed a ruling about some litigation I was involved in in Philadelphia, around 1993. This would be around the time that Ellen Cooke was busy stealing the money.

As you can read elsewhere in the blogosphere, the Episcopal Church is governed by a group of elected representatives called the General Convention. It meets once every three years. Like U.S. Congress, there are two houses: the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. These two bodies make the rules for the denomination. A proposed rule must pass each house to be effective. The rules are called canons. The canons are binding on the denomination.

There is no “enforcement mechanism” for these canons within the Episcopal Church. Enforcement is really, in the end, at civil court (ordinary state and federal courts). Because the rules come from the highest entity within the denomination, they are final.

In the days of Ellen Cooke as an official, she was the one to handle matters about the canons in between General Conventions. It’s kind of senseless to think that a church would pile up three years of questions, issues and administrative matters, and then handle them in General Convention. So you would reason that someone would be appointed to explain the canons in the meantime?

From all my factual research of the time, that person was Ellen Cooke. But pre-felon Ellen, or at least pre-indictment. Nobody knew she was up to no good. Nor did I.

Like I say, I had reason to make contact with Ellen because of my times as a worshipper at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia. I attended St. Clement’s once in 1987, while still at Penn, because I got tired of the excesses of Vatican II as they played out, ’80’s style, on the Penn campus. I think the lead priest associated with the Catholic club there was arrested for trying to break into a military installation and doing some vandalism. If memory serves, this was either part of, or a copycat of, a “Plowshares movement”.

But I really just went to church to pray.

So someone I knew then invited me down to St. Clement’s. When I began working in the city in 1988, I started to go there regularly, and pledged I think about $1,000 a year during 1989 and 1990, (which is close to $2,000 yearly in today’s money.)

Also in those days, I was a law student and budding lawyer from the Temple Law School in the city. A more idealistic lawyer, I would say, because I thought the law was respected and that the judicial system did its best to figure out what the law is and apply it.

None of my family were lawyers. We were middle class but more of what used to be referred to as a blue collar background. But education was very important, and always stressed. My grandfather, I didn’t know until after he passed away, only had a 4th grade education. He drove trucks for a living, the big rigs. But he things no one would know, like the history of Standard Oil. He knew at darn near every train crossing throughout New Jersey what line ran on it, where the train came from and where they were heading. He knew that the New Jersey license plate said “Garden State” on it, by law, because the Republicans in the state senate insisted, and the legislature overrode Governor Meyner’s veto. He knew more things than a lot of people, and knew things that not everybody would know.

The court system in New Jersey when I was growing up still basked in the glow of the 1947 Constitution. New Jersey’s modern constitution is a reform document. Before that time, our state government was one of the worst in the country for governance. In ’47, the people had finally had enough, and installed one of the best judicial systems in the world—in large part due to a lawyer and judge named Arthur T. Vanderbilt. But this is all an aside. The fact was where I came from, the law was not a game. It was respected, people held it in high regard.

Well, you know, far-suburban Jersey boy trying to make his way in the city, man, was I clueless!

The longer I attended St. Clement’s, the more the not-so-nice side of Episcopal parish life started to reveal itself. There was a stalker, there was the hushed discussion that I think was very valid, about trust fund money being diverted to an influential parishoners’ personal use. There were constant recriminations about “the changes in the Episcopal Church” and an uneasy alliance between these conservative anglo-Catholics and the downtown gay community. Which itself had three or four different factions it seemed, from liturgists to Act Up. Looking back on it, each side of this diametrically opposed small world was ignoring the differences so as to get what they wanted out of the church, more than people having an appreciation for one another.

But when you are low man in political deal, it ain’t too pleasant. Like I said, I really just wanted to pray.

When I wanted to have my say about things, I was basically told that despite my attendance and pledge, I was “not a member”. Hmmm.

“Why not?”

“Well, you’ve never been received into the Episcopal Church.”

So I had to learn what this was. What it meant simply, was that a Bishop had to recognize my confirmation as a Roman Catholic. This was done on annual visitation by the Bishop to each parish. So I asked to be included on the next one.

“Sorry,” I was told, “the Bishop isn’t welcome here and won’t be visiting.” I think the parish was trying to arrange for another bishop to visit, but he would not have the power to receive members into the denomination.

So I found another parish that would accept me for purposes of reception, and did this in 1991.

Afterward, I asked that my new letter of transfer be sent to St. Clement’s Church. The head minister of the parish I attended did this promptly.

And without explanation, it was rejected!

I think that went back and forth three times.

There was no having relief, because in the Episcopalian denomination, the member decides membership. Not the priest, not the bishop. So in my view, the antics had gone far enough. This was not simply a disagreement. It had become an assault on personal dignity.

So I sought a civil remedy.

To make it simple: a typical congregation is made up of two things: people and property. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that the government will not impose religious belief, through governmental organs, on people. The property, however, is controlled by state law.

Most states make it clear, for individual denominations, how the property entrusted to the denomination will be governed. This makes a tight and unambiguous legal setting for things. For example, New York or Maryland has a specific section of state statutes dedicated to the Episcopal Church. The property within the denomination is held through corporate structures, e.g. “The Church of the Really Holy Ones, a corporation.” The people who attend the Really Holy Ones parish may think of the church building and facilities as “theirs”, but it really belongs to the corporation, and they are the beneficiaries of its use. And the rules by which the property is used are set out by state law. Usually incorporating the canons of the denomination into that law. (Differing uses of words from “corporation” there. One describes what the parish is, the other is saying that the canons have been placed into state law.)

Pennsylvania works just a little differently. There, any incorporated “religious society”–no matter what denomination–is governed by the Pennsylvania Nonprofit Corporation Law, last major revision from 1988. Within that law, there is one statute, that I’ve blogged about, saying:

If and to the extent canon law applicable to a corporation incorporated for religious purposes shall set forth provisions relating to the government and regulation of the affairs of the corporation which are inconsistent with the provisions of this subpart on the same subject, the provisions of canon law shall control to the extent, and only to the extent, required by the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of Pennsylvania, or both.

[Emphasis added.]

Lawyers can get rich playing around about what that means, but really it’s just Pennsylvania’s way of taking the denominations rules and binding the parish corporation to those rules. If the rule is somehow illegal under civil law, of course, then the statute does not apply.

My original filing, which I think is captioned as Frederick W. Gundlach v. Peter Laister, 625 A.2d 706 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993), simply asked that the parish record the name like it was supposed to have done in 1992.

The vestry objected to the case. They said that their First Amendment rights prohibited a court from hearing the case. When you get this kind of objection, called “demurrer” in Pennsylvania, it is taken up by a small panel of judges—I think there were four in those days for Orphans’ Court.

What the Orphans’ Court judges in Philadelphia did was strange. They confused membership in a denomination with membership in a parish within a denomination. I had to argue en banc about that difference.

Then, because their line of reasoning was obviously a loser, the panel said that an “adjudication” had to occur before I could have the case come in. As they defined it, “adjudication” meant that a bishop or other higher official had to direct that the parish record my name. Even though this is simply not the practice within the Episcopal Church.

I think what the judges (or their 25 year-old law clerks more likely) had done, was confuse a rule that says, for denominations with a hierarchy, that:

“. . . whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them, in their application to the case before them.”

Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 20 L.Ed. 666, at 13 Wall. 721 (1871).

The Orphans’ Court panel would not define what the “adjudication” was supposed to be. What does it look like? The simple fact was, by the rules of the denomination as set out by the highest judicatory, it’s the member who decides. Not the rector. Not the bishop. Not the vestry.

So I did, then, “take it up the chain” as it were, to the Bishop. At that time, it was Allen L. Bartlett. His responses, that were months later than what I think was appropriate, were almost as a rule, mealy-mouthed. He would proceed to answer part of the question, then render some sort of “advice” that really didn’t offer much use. Bartlett also seemed to suggest the answer lied with the national church office in New York.

Once the court rejected that as an “insufficient adjudication”, I took the matter to Ellen Cooke, by letter. Again, several months later, I got an answer that was more of a blow-off than a response. I recall her simply directing the question back to Allen Bartlett. So the letter version of telephone tree hell.

The fact was, and is, there was no “judicatory” that decided parish memberships. It was a rule for the Episcopal Church that the judges made up, so that they didn’t have to hear the case AND so that they didn’t have to grant discovery. Had they even done that, at a minimum, I would have been able to ask my questions of these officials under oath—instead of by personal letter and wait several months.

Just the other day, sixteen years after my initial inquiries, I did get my answer by the way:

RE: Who determines membership in an Episcopal Church parish?
From: [deleted ]
Sent: Mon 11/30/09 11:36 AM
To: [deleted]

Dear Mr. Gundlach,

You are quite right. Transfers of membership are not akin to letters di[s]missory, which a bishop may accept or reject. If the cleric or lay person in charge of a congregation receives a lay person’s letter of transfer, he/she must record it in the new congregation’s roll and acknowledge receipt to the former congregation, so the lay person can be removed from the old congregation’s roll. The cleric or lay person in charge of a congregation can only remove that person (list him/her as inactive) for failure to conform to Canon I.17.2. or 3.

Gregory Straub
The Rev. Canon Gregory S. Straub
Executive Officer and Secretary of The General Convention

I had been run around in circles so much during the 1990’s, that I even hesitated to ask.

Five years on ice was not enough for Ellen Cooke, IMHO.

[Update: the proper term is in fact “letters dimissory”, and a membership transfer is not the same as these.]