Dismissal of Priest Ecclesiastical in Nature and Governed by Canon Law

In its 2011 decision in Hart v. Roman Catholic Episcopal Corp. of the Diocese of Kingston, the Ontario Court of Appeal held that the office of a pastor or priest is ecclesiastical in nature and, as such, governed by canon law. Under canon law, the church can remit a matter to the civil law courts but the church had never remitted a pastor's removal from office.

1. Facts

Father Hart was an ordained Roman Catholic priest. In 2004, he was appointed as pastor to two churches in Ontario for a renewable six-year term. However, in 2006, the Archdiocese became concerned about Father Hart's business relationship with a young man and about irregularities in parish finances. After placing him on administrative leave, the Archdiocese suspended Father Hart's faculties to exercise sacramental ministry in 2007 and, a year later, removed him from office.

Under canon law, Father Hart could have appealed each of these decrees. However, he chose not to do so. Instead, he brought a civil law action for damages for constructive dismissal.

The Archdiocese successfully brought a motion to stay Father Hart's civil action on the basis that its relationship with Father Hart was ecclesiastical in nature and governed by canon law and that the civil courts had no jurisdiction over his claim. The motions judge agreed with the Archdiocese. Father Hart appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

2. Ruling

The Court of Appeal affirmed that:

● At its core, Father Hart's dispute with the Archdiocese was ecclesiastical in nature and subject to canon law.

● When he was appointed pastor, his appointment was expressly subject to canon law.

● Canon law:

● creates the office;

● provides for the duties and responsibilities of the office; and

● describes the circumstances under which the office may be brought to an end.

● Under canon law, the church can remit a matter to the civil law courts but had never remitted a pastor's removal from office.

The court observed that, in general, the civil courts of the province have jurisdiction to adjudicate claims of wrongful dismissal and breach of employment contract. However, there are exceptions to the general rule - including the resolution of disputes between parties to a collective agreement by arbitration in accordance with labour relations legislation.

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 is aggrieved by a decision of that organization must seek redress in the internal procedures of that organization. Courts will interfere in the internal affairs of a self-governing organization only where:

● the organization's internal processes are unfair or do not meet the requirements of natural justice; or

● the aggrieved party has exhausted the organization's internal processes, in which case, the reviewing court will not consider the merits of the internal decision but only whether the decision was carried out in accordance with the organization's rules and the requirements of natural justice.

In this case, Father Hart had available a fair internal review process but declined to follow it. Instead, he tried to circumvent that process by bringing a civil action.

The Court of Appeal affirmed that the civil court had no jurisdiction over Father Hart's claim.

3. Key Observations

Hart provides an excellent example of the dividing line between canon law jurisdiction over matters that are ecclesiastical in nature and the general civil law jurisdiction over employment law. Courts will respect the internal decisions of religious organizations as long as (a) their internal processes are fair and meet the minimum requirements of natural justice and (b) the impugned internal decision was carried out in accordance with the organization's rules and the requirements of natural justice. Courts are not to superimpose their own decisions on the merits of the internal decision.

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