Clergy discipline not subject to civil review, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court of South Australia has held clergy discipline is an internal church not matter, not subject to civil court review.  

In a unanimous decision handed down on 23 December 2013, the court in Harrington and Ors v Coote and Anor [2013] SASCFC 154 held that the church’s disciplinary canons were part of the “consensual contract” between clergy and their diocese, and that the Church’s Professional Standards Board had the power to investigate and discipline clergy.

In 2004 the Archdeacon of the Murray, the Ven. Peter Coote, was accused of sexual misconduct by three female members of the diocese.  The diocese’s Professionals Standards Committee found the allegations to be credible and in July 2007 Archdeacon Coote was dismissed from his post and his license to officiate suspended.

Archdeacon Coote appealed the rule to the national church’s Professional Standards Board, which upheld the diocese’s ruling in 2009. He subsequently appealed that decision, which was upheld in 2011. The archdeacon was granted a further review conducted by an independent attorney, who in April 2012 concluded the Professional Standards Board lacked jurisdiction.

The diocesan Professional Standards Board filed suit in civil court asking for a declaration that it had jurisdiction to hear the case, and a ruling that the independent attorney’s review be dismissed. The archdeacon’s attorney asked the court to uphold the finding of no jurisdiction, and further argued the national church’s 2007 disciplinary canons were inconsistent with Article IX of the church’s constitution.

The Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, Archbishop Philip Aspinall subsequently asked permission to intervene in the case to defend the “constitutional validity” of the diocesan and national church disciplinary canons.

“The Professional Standards Ordinance 2007 of the Diocese of the Murray is largely mirrored in some 21 of the 23 dioceses which constitute the Anglican Church of Australia,” Archbishop Aspinall’s pleading said.

“Were any challenge to the validity of any professional standards ordinance to succeed, or should such a view be expressed by this honourable court, it may have widespread and adverse consequences for all of the dioceses that make up the Anglican Church of Australia,” the archbishop argued.

In their decision, the three judge panel held the independent attorney’s review was “flawed” and not binding upon the parties.

In his ruling Chief Justice Chris Kourakis Kourakis CJ noted that section 3 of the Anglican Church of Australia Constitution Act 1961 (SA) (ACAC), provided that the constitution, canons and rules of the Church in South Australia were binding on the bishops, clergy and laity of the Church in South Australia in matters relating to property.

The right to appoint a member of clergy to a position with a benefice or salary, and the licence held by a member of the clergy to conduct spiritual ceremonies on the property of the Church were “matters relating to property” under the Act, he held.

He further held the Anglican Church of Australia’s national constitution (ACAC) had legal force in South Australia :

It follows that s 3 of ACAC (SA) gives legal effect to the Anglican National Constitution, the constitution of Murray Diocese and the ordinances, canons and rules made under it in so far as they govern those aspects of Mr. Coote’s licenses as a parish priest. Those instruments legally bind Mr. Coote…and the incumbents of the responsible offices of the Anglican Church…in all matters affecting Mr. Coote’s license and authority as rector of the parish….and Justice Peek said they were satisfied the orders sought by the Church should be made.

 

Harrington v Coote

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