PITTSBURGH: Diocesan leaders ask court for access to assets

January 7, 2009

The current leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh January 8 asked a special master overseeing diocesan assets to give them control over those assets.


The request by the diocese and Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh was made to the Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County under the terms of an October 2005 court order in which the then-leaders of the diocese agreed that the diocese 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…"

The Rev. Dr. James Simons, president of the diocesan Standing Committee, which is now the ecclesiastical authority in the diocese, said in a January 8 news release that "we're not asking for anything the court has not already addressed, or for anything former leaders have not already agreed to."

On October 4, the diocese's 143rd annual convention voted to leave the Episcopal Church. The people who departed, led by deposed Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, have said they are now part of the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone while they attempt to form a parallel Anglican province in North America and seek official recognition by the Anglican Communion. Duncan and those he leads have continued to hold the diocesan property in question. Their website refers to both the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican).

"Whatever Robert Duncan and his followers may claim to be, they cannot claim to be 'the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America'," the diocese argued in the request.

The Rev. Peter Frank, spokesman for the Southern Cone-affiliated diocese, issued a statement saying that the request to the court is "both procedurally and substantively improper. Moreover, it is regrettable that these groups have chosen to pursue more litigation rather than agree to equitable division of the assets."

Approximately $20 million in diocesan endowments and bank accounts, as well as other resources -- some non-financial -- were used in conducting day-to-day diocesan business, according to the release. The request did not directly address the use of church buildings but diocesan leaders have said that ownership issues will need to be resolved. The new release said that "attempts to complete an orderly transition of assets to those who remain in the Episcopal Church have been ignored by those who left it."

After the convention's vote on October 4, Duncan told reporters that he and those who supported the realignment "will negotiate fairly with congregations for what's best and right, considering that stake the diocese has and what stake they have." Duncan added that "in many cases, we don't have any historic stake in the property" but that in some the diocese built the churches.

The October 2005 ruling resulted from a lawsuit that Calvary filed against the diocese since the fall of 2003 when a special diocesan convention passed a resolution stating that all property in the diocese -- which under Episcopal Church canons is held in trust by the diocese for the entire church -- instead belongs to individual congregations or the diocese itself. The legal action sought "to preserve and protect the unity and integrity of the property," a statement on Calvary's website said at the time.

The property held by or administered by the Pittsburgh diocese is now being overseen by the "special master" appointed by the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas two days before Duncan's deposition. Pittsburgh attorney Stanley E. Levine and the Campbell & Levine law firm are to prepare an inventory, and "advise the court as to any alleged violations" of the October 2005 court order.

Approximately 27 congregations, or about 40% of the Pittsburgh diocese prior to the October separation, remain active in the life of the Episcopal Church.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.