Good Shepherd Rosemont update: Rector suing former lawyer

So says both David Virtue of and the Philadelphia Inquirer, in a New Year’s Day piece.

Reverend Moyer, the rector at Good Shepherd, Rosemont PA, had his license to practice as an Episcopalian priest taken away from him by Pennsylvania Bishop Bennsion in late 2002. This was several years before Bennison, in turn, was “inhibited” (had his license taken away to be a bishop) in the diocese, for covering up his brother’s abuse of a teenager in the 1970’s.

Father Moyer has continued at the Good Shepherd Rosemont to this very day, as there has been litigation surrounding the propriety of the ex-Bishop’s actions. (I think, in the meantime, the ex-Bishop is also trying to get reinstated into his position.)

It is a denomination that really has a penchant for litigation, and that’s mostly what observers have commented about the latest news. But to me, it just looks like a sad mess.

As I’ve stated here before, the problem comes down to a lack of solid rules within the Diocese. I experienced this myself in the early 1990’s. And what a bear the thing is, when you try to nail the rules down.

I’m not quite sure why Moyer is going after his former attorney, the litigator John Lewis of Philadelphia’s Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads. The reports say that a firm that was brought in last year discovered these deficiencies in whatever John Lewis had done for Moyer.

Lewis is top notch, so the detractors say that Moyer is way off on a limb. The pro-Moyer people say that Lewis didn’t do basic things that should have really helped Moyer. I haven’t seen the complaint yet—it’s not available online, and I’m hoping someone on the net will get down to Philly and put it out.

Here is the case information:

Regardless, I think Father Moyer is going to have to tough row with this. Pennsylvania lower-court judges have done so much to confuse the situation of Episcopal Church governance, who is to say what the winning strategy is in a Pennsylvania court?

Since Gundlach v. Laister, the lower court judges, mostly Roman Catholics, have imposed the Roman Catholic form of governance on the Episcopal Church. When the Bishop and Standing Committee themselves became parties to litigation in the last decade (the 2000’s), they have encouraged this sort of interpretation.

As I’ve said, I feel the key is sitting in a Pennsylvania statute that the state judiciary has practically ignored, Section 5107 of the Nonprofit Corporation Law—subordination of subpart to canon law.

I think it makes validly-enacted canons enforceable against all parties in a state religious society dispute. So if there is a religious society dispute, and there is a set of validly enacted canons, the judge applies the canons to the dispute.

Indeed, this is what California said in New v. Kroeger, 167 Cal. App. 4th 800; 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d 464 (2008), using California Corporation Code (“Nonprofit Religious Corporation Law“) Section 9150.

According to the California court, Section 9150 is a “neutral principle of law”, and in addition,

. . . in applying neutral principles of law, courts may look not only to California corporations law, but also to the religious corporation’s bylaws and articles of incorporation, as well as the national church’s constitutions, canons, and the like.

So California courts apparently have no difficulty applying the canons of the Episcopalian denomination to the members in resolving a dispute. But the Pennsylvania courts do.

How does this help or hinder Reverend Moyer?

Either Father Moyer was validly stripped of a license in 2002, or he wasn’t. And it depends on canons, applying the facts as a trial court finds them to a neutral reading of the rules. (Many people feel the ex-Bishop overstepped in this regard.)

Did John Lewis put Section 5107 (subordination of subpart to canon law) out there in defending Moyer? I don’t know. But more so, I’m not certain a Pennsylvania judge would have accepted the argument even if Lewis had done that.

It’s like I’ve said before, I don’t think Pennsylvania judges in the main are very sophisticated when it comes to this issue. Yes, the overwhelming number involved in these cases are Roman Catholics, but it’s more dopery than popery. They can’t imagine a Catholic-looking religion where some, if not all, of the “highest judicatory” that makes the rules are non-priests. You can argue until you’re blue in the face, they can’t imagine a religious system without some, you know, “pope” there being a final decider.

The idea that a General Convention of lay (non-clerical) delegates sets up rules commits them to print just goes right over their heads. I know.

So in the end, Father Moyer is probably going to lose on this one, too, if it goes to a jury trial. If for the very fact that John Lewis was wading into a jurisprudential swamp or some quicksand. If you can’t get the bench to acknowledge how your denomination is truly governed, how can you get your client justice?

[Update: Here it is a year later (January 2011), and the Rosemonters did pull the malpractice litigation. It just didn’t seem to me that they had a very strong case to win it.]

[Update March 2011: I hear that one part of the counterclaim against Father Moyer and the vestry, which was for work performed by MMWR that wasn’t paid, has been settled with a payment.]