LETTER FROM AMERICA

News from Accokeek

When the Title IV Review Committee dismissed presentment charges against Acting Bishop Jane Dixon, it may have laid the legal groundwork for a potential civil lawsuit ‘against Jane Dixon personally,’ according to Charles Nalls of deKieffer & Horgan, attorney for Christ Church, Accokeek, and its rector, Fr Samuel Edwards.

Nalls indicated that such a cause of action might involve the contract between Fr Edwards and Christ Church to become the parish's rector. The contract was signed after the expiration of a 30-day review period of the call of a rector allowed bishops, and after the vestry notified Dixon they intended to sign the contract. Fr Edwards, who became rector March 25, will have been at the parish six months on Tuesday.

While Nalls would not reveal what sort of civil suit might be brought against Dixon, it has been widely observed that Fr Edwards and Christ Church might file a suit with damages for Dixon's interference in a properly executed contract.

The Title IV Review Committee, which decides whether charges brought against a bishop or priest go forward to an ecclesiastical court, dismissed the presentment charges against Dixon on September 5. Word of the decision did not become public until September 13.

Presentment charges brought in July claim Dixon violated the canons when she rejected the call of Fr Edwards to be rector 53 days after the expiration of a 30-day time limit in the canons for a bishop to review a vestry's call of a rector.

The Review Committee's decision, according to some observers, potentially helps Dixon's civil lawsuit against Fr. Edwards in the U.S. District Court of Maryland's southern division in Greenbelt, MD by showing the church courts could not resolve the dispute. Fr Edwards still faces charges he is serving as a priest in the Diocese of Washington without a license in the Diocese of Fort Worth, where he is canonically resident.

Nalls, however, disagrees with those who think Dixon has gained ground in her civil suit as a result of Review Committee's decision. ‘I think it hurts her more than helps her because it creates a cause of action’ for Fr Edwards and Christ Church in the civil courts.

Dixon filed a suit in June asking the federal court to oust Fr Edwards as rector, invalidate the contract between him and Christ Church, oust the Edwards family from the rectory, and compel the vestry to allow Dixon to visit the parish to hold services and speak at meetings.

The potential liability for Dixon arises in the language of the decision rendered by the Title IV Review Committee, Nalls says. In the explanation for its decision, the committee stated that both sides held equally valid views on the disputed canons and that Dixon's interpretation of the canons was ‘reasonable’.

On September 14 Dixon's attorneys filed a motion to supplement the record in civil suit against Fr Edwards to include the decision of the Review Committee considering the presentment charges.

The disposition of the civil case is being deliberated by Judge Peter J. Messitte, who held a hearing on August 23 on the motions brought before the court, including two motions from Dixon (one for a preliminary injunction and another for summary judgment), as well as a motion to dismiss suit brought by Christ Church and Fr Edwards.

Today, in a response to Dixon's supplemental motion of September 14, Nalls filed a response telling the court that the decision of the Title IV Committee's decision is ‘just one’ decision in the ongoing legal battle within the Episcopal Church and it does not resolve the issue.

Nalls also tells Judge Messitte in his response that ‘the court need not worry about the committee's decision because we've stated enough other reasons to dismiss the case,’ Nalls says.

Nalls' response also informs the court that the decision of the Review Committee poses potential new legal liability for Dixon. ‘If views of the canons by both sides are equally valid, as the Title IV Committee claims, then the vestry properly contracted with Fr. Edwards,’ Nalls says. ‘The decision thus gives rise to a counter claim,’ he adds.

Nalls has faulted the Review Committee's decision for ignoring the clear meaning of the canons. That decision, he says, ‘ends the notion that the Episcopal Church is a constitutional Church.’ It says, instead, that ‘a diocesan bishop is an absolute satrap in his diocese.’

The potential for an adverse outcome in the civil courts in the wake of the decision demonstrates the hazards of the course taken by revisionists who seem no danger to deconstructing canons to support one of their own in a legal dispute, Nalls says. ‘There's a real world of real people out there’ where words have precise meanings and decisions can have real consequences, he says.

Notice of the Review Committee's decision, signed by its President, Bishop Charles L. Keyser, was sent to Nalls on September 13, Nalls says, with a cover letter from Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold dated September 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

A day before receiving notice of the decision (on the morning of September 12) Dixon's attorney, JoAnn MacBeth of Crowell & Moring, called Nalls to tell him that the diocese was breaking off talks in mediation efforts to solve the dispute that were sought by Judge Messitte. ‘She told me, "the bishop feels that the property issues are just too great" to reach an agreement,’ Nalls says. He notes that this claim contradicts statements in the past by Dixon when she said the dispute is not about property issues.

On September 14, as Dixon stood in the National Cathedral to open a special service as part of the President's call for a Day of Prayer and Remembrance, her attorneys were filing a motion to supplement the record in the courthouse in Greenbelt notifying Judge Messitte of the church panel's ruling favoring Dixon.

Nalls claims the circumstantial evidence suggests that Griswold and/or someone on the Review Committee improperly gave Dixon advance notice of the decision, ahead of the notice to Nalls on the afternoon of September 13. ‘The timing was awfully suspicious,’ he says.

The actions taken by Griswold and Dixon at the height of one of the nation's worst crises was been widely criticized for their timing and lack of sensitivity.

Robert Stowe, England

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