Friday, January 26, 2018

Abp Hepworth To Visit St Mary Of The Angels February 4

I've learned through unofficial channels that Abp Hepworth will make what appears to be an episcopal visit to St Mary of the Angels on February 4. It will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the parish's founding in a Hollywood storefront by Fr Dodd. At that time, he will also, based on the version I've heard, formally assert his jurisdiction over the parish.

Now that I've had several weeks to reflect on the news that came out January 4 and the discussion in front of Judge Murphy, I think I have a general idea of the vestry's likely course of action. I'm not an attorney; I am not a member of the vestry; I haven't been a member of the parish since 2012; legal strategies are confidential, and I'm not privy to them. So far, the vestry has given me no official or unofficial statement about Abp Hepworth's visit or its forward strategy.

However, Mr Lengyel-Leahu did, in discussion in the courtroom, give a general outline of what his position will likely be. Although the superior court's appeals division in December 2017 reversed Judge Strobel's 2015 decision declaring the parsh's August 2012 vote to leave the ACA valid, this decision did not affect the state appeals court's 2014 finding that the vestry elected in February 2012 was the valid St Mary of the Angels vestry. This has an important effect on other Rector, Wardens, and Vestry cases, which were decided on the basis that the Bush group, which claimed to be the vestry, did not have standing.

Here is the ACA's problem: the appeals division has ruled on narrow technical grounds that the parish's August 2012 vote to leave the ACA was invalid. As a result, the parish is officially under the ACA. However, based on the state appeals court's decision, the elected vestry, Fr Kelley, and its wardens continue to be the vestry. But under the articles of incorporation, the vestry owns and controls the property. The vestry hires the rector. The rector has the keys to the property. (So far, St Mary of the Angels has not reappeared on the ACA Diocese of the West web site.)

As a result, the ACA is in a similar, though less advantageous, position to the TEC Diocese of Pennsylvania when David Moyer was rector of Good Shepherd Rosemont. The then-bishop hated Moyer. The bishop had inhibited and deposed Moyer. The bishop wanted to come on the property, but Moyer wouldn't let him. The Good Shepherd vestry was the entity that employed Moyer, and it kept him in its employ. This also is fairly clearly what the situation is at St Mary of the Angels.

The TEC diocese, recognizing the delicacy of the situation, was apparently reluctant to evict Moyer from the property, but legally, the TEC diocese did control the property, and eventually it saw the need, after about a dozen years, to evict Moyer. The ACA, however, does not own the St Mary of the Angels property due to the unique nature of the parish's founding documents. It cannot legally evict Fr Kelley. There is no way it can legally or canonically remove the vestry in whole or part.

As a result, the ACA is pretty much in the same situation it was in as of May 2012, when Mrs Bush and Mr Lancaster went to Judge Jones to seek a temporary restraining order barring Fr Kelley and the elected vestry from the property. Judge Jones first granted the order, then quickly reversed herself, saying this was an ecclesiastical issue, and she had no authority under the US First Amendment to interfere.

As far as I can see, while the ACA can claim ecclesiastical authority over the parish, it can't evict Fr Kelley, and it can't replace the elected vestry. There is no question that a good litigation attorney can try to pick away at the February 2012 vestry election and, depending on the mean temperature on the day the matter goes to court and what the judge had for breakfast, try to get some kind of an ex parte, but this will cost money, and the elected vestry will have the clear precedent of Judge Jones's original reversal of the first ex parte.

This means that the elected vestry will likely continue to have control of the bank accounts and the rental income from the commercial property. Meanwhile, the Bush group had run out of most of its resources in 2015, when by his filing, Mr Lancaster was last paid.

The state appeals court has already ruled that the Bush group does not have standing to litigate this matter further. As far as I can see, the ACA, not Mrs Bush, would need to file a new suit challenging the February 2012 vestry election, which would initiate a new, multimillion-dollar, multi-year process of litigation. The ACA would need to come up with many thousands of dollars to hire a new set of attorneys to do this. The vestry, though, now has the rental income from the commercial property to defend itself.

I certainly do not endorse this, but it does seem to me that both parties, the elected vestry and the ACA, are in a stalemate where they have roughly equal standing. There should be major incentive to settle this matter on terms generous to Fr Kelley and the parish employees.