Judge orders property returned to Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh

Judge orders property returned to Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh

By Mary Frances Schjonberg, February 01, 2010

[Episcopal News Service]  A judge has told the organization headed by former bishop Robert Duncan that claims to have withdrawn from the Episcopal Church in 2008 that it must turn over control of the Diocese of Pittsburgh‘s assets.

In a Jan. 29 order County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph M. James accepted as accurate an inventory of diocesan property submitted by a “special master” he had appointed earlier and told Duncan’s organization it must transfer the assets.

The inventory includes $22 million in cash, cash equivalents, receivables, and investments including about $2.5 million in pooled parish investments and real estate and other real property.

“The diocese plans to quickly make arrangements so that all parishes may again have access to their investment funds that were frozen by financial institutions during the legal proceedings,” according to a news release from the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

On Oct. 4, 2008 a majority of the delegates to the diocese’s 143rd annual convention approved a resolution by which the diocese purported to leave the Episcopal Church. The leaders who departed have said that they remain in charge of an entity they have been calling the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh that is now part of the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. And they say that in that capacity they control all the assets that were held by the diocese when they left.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph M. James, however, ruled Oct. 6 that all diocesan assets must be held by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh that is recognized by the Episcopal Church. James’ opinion and order are here.

The group led by Duncan said Oct. 29 that it would appeal the ruling once the court issues a final order directing it to transfer the property to the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.

In a Jan. 30 e-mail, Duncan told the diocese he leads that he wanted “to assure you that we will continue to work diligently for the protection of all our parishes and for the good of our mission and ministry.”

James’ order says that financial institutions and repositories, trustees and fiduciaries must only act on instructions from the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, that no real property can be sold or its current occupants removed without a court order, that holders of “altar artifacts” are answerable to the diocese as to their use (and that they cannot be sold or transferred to another location without a court order) and that people or entities who have borrowed money from the diocese (close to $1 million) are answerable to the Episcopal diocese.

Duncan’s diocese has 20 days from Jan. 29 to give the Episcopal diocese the financial records, documents and other electronically stored information it needs to hold and administer the property.

There are two versions of the order: a confidential version and a public version from which financial account information has been removed.

The suit arose out of a 2003 complaint by Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh after a special diocesan convention passed a resolution stating that all property in the diocese, which under Episcopal Church canons must held and used for the mission of the church, would be held free of that obligation.

The proceedings in the suit led to an October 2005 stipulated court order in which Duncan and the other then-leaders of the diocese agreed that the “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America” would continue to hold or administer property “regardless of whether some or even a majority of the parishes in the diocese might decide not to remain in the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.”

After the 2008 diocesan convention vote, Calvary Episcopal Church asked James to enforce his 2005 order.

In his Oct. 6 opinion James said that “regardless of what name the defendants now call themselves, they are not the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.” He ruled that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh “did not cease to exist” after the 2008 convention vote because it was created by the Episcopal Church and the church now recognizes that those Episcopalians who did not follow Duncan now make up the Episcopal Church’s continuing diocese.

The property held by or administered by the Pittsburgh diocese has been reviewed and evaluated by a “special master” James appointed two days before Duncan’s removal as a bishop of the Episcopal Church. The special master, Pittsburgh attorney Stanley E. Levine and the Campbell & Levine law firm, gave James an inventory of the property involved in the suit on Jan. 27. James said in his order two days later that his acceptance of the inventory does not preclude other property being added to his order.

All of the public documents in the 2003 case including the Jan. 29 order are available here.