June 8, 2010

Diocese Distributes Parish Funds

According to Saturday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh has distributed earnings from investment funds held by the diocese for the benefit of individual parishes. Distribution of earnings had been suspended following the October 4, 2008, schism pending the determination of ownership of diocesan assets.

Judge Joseph M. James issued an order January 29, 2010, awarding the Episcopalians diocesan assets, as cataloged by special master Stanley E. Levine. The order did not preclude the Episcopal diocese from requesting additional assets not cataloged. According to the news story,
[Bishop Price’s] diocese was awarded about $20 million in centrally held diocesan assets in a 2009 decision by Allegheny Common Pleas Judge Joseph James. Parish property is to be negotiated separately. However, the Episcopal diocese also held $2.5 million in endowment funds belonging to parishes that had pooled their money to get higher interest. The court decree indicated that parishes had the right to that money.
I assume that reporter Ann Rodgers is referring to this paragraph in the report from Levine, which was attached to Judge James’s order:
The line-item “Cash Held for Others” is listed among the investment assets of the diocese “that are subject to Paragraph One of the Stipulation” solely because investments relating to this line-item are commingled and jointly administered by the diocese; however, the Master believes that individual parishes for whom such property is administered have the right to withdraw the cash or investment asset value (which is separately accounted for on Schedule A) at any time, and thereby remove such property from the scope of Paragraph One.
Diocesan spokesman Rich Creehan is quoted as saying “that checks for five quarters of interest went to 31 parishes and five church-related organizations.” The “parishes” were in both the Episcopal and “Anglican” dioceses.

The court order supposedly was only about diocesan property, determining the meaning of the first paragraph of the stipulation to which all parties agreed in 2005. Mr. Levine’s opinion about the ownership of funds he determined were not diocesan funds is, I would think, irrelevant. No doubt, both Bishop Price and Archbishop Duncan would agree that the pooled investment funds belong to individual parishes. That is not really the question, however. The question is who represents the owning parishes.

That said, I must admit that I am only working from the public version of the court order. An un-redacted version is under seal. I hope that nothing more than account numbers have been removed from the public version. I do not know if other provisions or agreements are being kept secret, however. I doubt it.

In any case, I have serious reservations about distributing earnings to organizations not under the authority of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. I would have even greater objections to distributing the principal to churches under Archbishop Robert Duncan. The Post-Gazette story quotes Anglican Standing Committee president and rector of Trinity Church, Washington, Pa., the Rev. Karen Stevenson. “They did give us money,” she said. “It’s not as if they’re giving us their money. They’re just releasing the money that belonged to us.”

The money, I suggest, does not belong to the Rev. Mrs. Stevenson’s church or to any of the other parishes in Bob Duncan’s stable. As has been consistently asserted by Episcopal Church leaders, people can leave The Episcopal Church, but parishes cannot. All the money was invested on behalf of Episcopal Church parishes. The clergy and vestry of, for example, Trinity, Washington, do not represent Trinity, Washington, the parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. They are therefore not entitled to the money that has been given or to the money Stevenson would like them to be given.

The money in question, maybe 5% or so of the funds handed over to the Episcopal diocese, is perhaps seen as not worth fighting over. According to a diocesan press release,
Before that court decision [of October 6, 2009], the Episcopal Diocese agreed that the normal distributions from these investment accounts to the parishes should not be frozen.
Why that agreement was made, I do not know. Any concession that Episcopal parishes have indeed left the diocese would seem a dangerous price to pay to avoid more litigation or simply unhappiness among those who have left the diocese, particularly when the Episcopal diocese seems to have a strong claim on the funds on behalf of Episcopal parishes. I believe that the money has been distributed for pastoral (and perhaps for strategic legal) reasons and that the diocese is not conceding that any Episcopal parish has left.

Many former Episcopalians, of course, have left. So have many Episcopalians who just wanted to stay with their congregations. It is to be hoped that some of these folks will eventually find their way home.


The Episcopal Church Welcomes You

1 comment:

  1. Frankly, I could not agree with you more. I was puzzled by the newspaper article and more than a little troubled by Ms Rodgers' usual pro-Duncan slant. Since parishes cannot leave, then the Episcopal Diocese has a duty to protect and preserve the endowment funds for the remaining lapsed parish until such time as the funds can be used to re-open that parish. I am at a loss for any rationale which would permit the Diocese to turnover funds, especially while the departed continued to assert ownership and possession of other Episcopal Diocese assets, namely the rel estate. The question is whether the Episcopal Diocese is giving the departed groups the funds to buy what now appears to be surplus real estate that would be costly to maintain. If that is the idea, I would not rely on the departed to use those funds to acquire the real estate which they think that they own. What is going on here?

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