United States: Massachusetts Court Applies "Neutral Principles of Law" To Resolve Dispute Over Church Trespass

Recently, the Massachusetts courts were called upon to resolve a question of trespass in a Catholic Church owned by the Archdiocese of Boston. Applying "neutral principles of law," even as there was rejected the assertion that the courts could address issues of Catholic Canon law, it was determined that the individuals were trespassing on the property. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bostonv. Rogers, No. 15-P-839, 2015 WL 5944101 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 14, 2015).

In 2004, the Boston Archdiocese (the "RCAB") determined to "suppress" (that is the technical term used in the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church) a number of parishes, including one in Scituate, Massachusetts. Certain former parishioners of that church thereafter maintained a 24/7 vigil in the church. Certain of those same parishioners (i) appealed the suppression to the Vatican and (ii) filed an action in civil court alleging that under Canon Law the RCAB held the church in trust for the benefit of the parishioners. In that the civil action asked a court to, in effect, apply Roman Catholic Canon Law, it was determined that the court could not hear that dispute as it is outside of its competency. That determination was affirmed by the Massachusetts Court of Appeals in 2008 (the "Prior Ruling").

Ultimately, all of the appeals to the Vatican seeking the reversal of the parish's suppressions were denied. Thereafter, when various parishioners continued to maintain their vigil even after a written demand that they vacate the property, the RCAB filed an action seeking a determination that (a) those maintaining the vigil are trespassers and (b) seeking an injunction precluding them from continuing the vigil.

In a pretrial order, the trial court judge:

Limited the proof at trial to RCAB's right of possession, stating that "[t]he trial will not concern defendants' alleged further appeal within the ecclesiastical process regarding the closing of the parish or ownership of the [c]hurch...[or] the application or interpretation of Canon Law." The judge also precluded evidence or argument that the defendants are equitable owners of the church, concluding that such matters had already been addressed in [the Prior Ruling].

After a bench trial, the trial court: (a) dismissed, because it would require an interpretation of Catholic Canon Law, the defendant's assertion of a equitable ownership in the church property; (b) determined that the former parishioners were trespassing upon the Archdiocese's property; and (c) and enjoined those former parishioners from entering the church. This appeal followed.

One argument made by the defendants was that the court could not rule in this matter because it would necessarily involve an interpretation of Catholic Canon Law. The trial court, affirmed by the Court of Appeals, concluded that the right to enter into the property could be resolved using "neutral principles of law" in that Massachusetts civil law determines what is required for and what are the incidents/benefits of ownership.

In this instance, record ownership of the church in this property was vested in the RCAB, and the RCAB is entitled to determine who may use and how may be used that property. The claims brought under Canon Law, being nonjusticiable by a civil court, did not give rise to an enforceable interest in the property.

From there, the trial court's determination that the individuals were trespassing was easily determined in that there was no dispute that they were on the property against the express instructions of the RCAB. On that basis, the injunction against trespassing in the church was affirmed.

Originally published on Kentucky Business Entity Law

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