Caesar Declines Jurisdiction

Hart v. Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese of Kingston, in Canada, 2011 ONCA 728

[1] The appellant, Father Hart, is an ordained Roman Catholic priest. In 2004, the respondent … appointed Father Hart pastor to a church … for a renewable six-year term.

[2] In 2006, the Archdiocese became concerned about Father Hart’s business relationship with …. and about irregularities in parish finances. The Archdiocese proceeded to issue three decrees to Father Hart. In July 2006, it placed him on administrative leave. In May 2007, it suspended his faculties to exercise sacramental ministry. Then in June 2008, the Archdiocese removed Father Hart from office.

[3] Under canon law Father Hart could have appealed each of these three decrees. He chose not to do so. Instead, he brought this action for damages for constructive dismissal.

[4] The Archdiocese brought a motion under s. 106 of the Courts of Justice Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C-43, and rule 21.01(3) of the Rules of Civil Procedure, R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 194, to stay Father Hart’s civil action on the ground that the court had no jurisdiction over his claim. The Archdiocese contended that its relationship with Father Hart was ecclesiastical in nature, and governed by canon law. Father Hart was therefore required to seek redress, not through the courts, but through the internal review process provided by canon law.

[5] The motion judge, Beaudoin J., agreed with the Archdiocese’s contention. He stayed Father Hart’s action as an abuse of process. He gave detailed reasons in which he concluded at para. 45:

The essence of the claim between Father Hart and the Archdiocese is ecclesiastical in nature and this court has no jurisdiction over that dispute. Moreover, the internal processes that are designed to deal with that dispute do not offend the principles of natural justice and Father Hart has not exhausted the internal processes available to him. For these reasons, these proceedings constitute an abuse of process and are stayed.

[6] On his appeal, Father Hart makes three submissions:

(1) The motion judge erred by making findings of fact on disputed issues;

(2) The motion judge erred in holding that the Superior Court of Justice has no jurisdiction over Father Hart’s claim; and

(3) The Archdiocese treated Father Hart unfairly because it refused his request for a hearing.

[7] I do not agree with these submissions. In my view, Beaudoin J. correctly decided this motion. I would therefore dismiss Father Hart’s appeal.

[29] I agree with the motion judge that the Superior Court of Justice has no jurisdiction over Father Hart’s claim. …

[17] As a general rule, the Superior Court of Justice has jurisdiction to adjudicate claims of wrongful dismissal and breach of an employment contract. But the general rule has exceptions. One well recognized exception is where the essential character of a dispute between an employer and an employee arises from the interpretation, application, administration, or violation of a collective agreement. Those disputes must be resolved by arbitration, not by an action in the court: see Weber v. Ontario Hydro, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 929.

[18] A second exception is where the rules of a self-governing organization, especially a religious organization, provide an internal dispute resolution process. A person who voluntarily chooses to be a member of a self-governing organization and who has been aggrieved by a decision of that organization must seek redress in the internal procedures of the organization: see Levitts Kosher Foods v. Levin (1999), 45 O.R. (3d) 147 (S.C.).

[19] The courts will interfere in the internal affairs of a self-governing organization in only two situations: where the organization’s internal processes are unfair or do not meet the requirements of natural justice; or where the aggrieved party has exhausted the organization’s internal processes. In the latter case, subject to any enabling statutory provision, the reviewing court will not consider the merits of the internal decision, but will determine only whether the decision was carried out in accordance with the organization’s rules and the requirements of natural justice: see Ukrainian Greek Orthodox of Canada v. Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mary the Protectress, [1940] S.C.R. 586; Lakeside Colony of Hutterian Brothren v. Hofer, [1992] 3 S.C.R. 165; Mott-Trille v. Steed (1996), 27 O.R. (3d) 486 (S.C.).

[20] The Roman Catholic Church is a self-governing organization. Its canon law provides an internal review process for ecclesiastical disputes. The expert evidence before the motion judge showed that where an administrative decree may affect the rights of a party, canon law requires that the party be given notice, an opportunity to respond and an unbiased tribunal. Canon law also provides a broad range of remedies, including the substitution of a different decree, monetary compensation and even a trial.

[21] The motion judge found that the internal review process under canon law meets the requirements of natural justice. Father Hart does not suggest otherwise. Was he then bound to follow the internal review process instead of suing in the Superior Court?

[22] The answer to that question turns on the nature of his dispute with the Archdiocese. The nature of the dispute is determined not by its legal characterization – as breach of an employment contract or a claim for constructive dismissal – but by the facts giving rise to it: see Weber, at p. 955.

[23] The facts show that at its core Father Hart’s dispute with the Archdiocese is ecclesiastical in nature and subject to canon law. When he was appointed pastor, his appointment was expressly subject to canon law. The experts who testified on the motion agreed that the office of pastor is ecclesiastical. Canon law creates the office, provides for the office’s duties and responsibilities, and describes the circumstances under which the office can be brought to an end. Under canon law the church can remit a matter to the civil law but it has never remitted a pastor’s removal from office.

[24] Therefore, even though some aspects of Father Hart’s dispute with the Archdiocese concern matters of property, for example his loss of lodging, at its essence this dispute is ecclesiastical. Redress must be sought through the internal review process established by canon law for disputes of an ecclesiastical nature. Father Hart does not contest that this review process accords with the rules of natural justice. However, even though he did not invoke this review process he submits that the Archdiocese treated him unfairly because it refused his request for a hearing.

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