This article by Bill Moyer appeared today in the Press and Sun. It is well written and accurate and I am thankful for Mr. Moyer's careful attention to the facts. Here is the letter I wrote to Good Shepherd following Judge Lebous' most recent decision:
Dear Good Shepherd,
The last part of the lawsuit filed by Diocese of Central New York against us has been decided and the judge has ruled that the Branan bequest now belongs to Christ Church and the Diocese of Central New York. This is not great news but it is not terrible news either. We were not counting on victory after the first ruling in this case and we have already learned that no matter what the outcome in the courts, the Lord loves us and will protect and provide for our needs.
We are, moreover, so very thankful that we live in a nation governed by the rule of law where our defense was heard by an impartial and objective judge and the Diocese of Central New York could not simply seize our buildings and assets by fiat as it would have liked. How wonderful it has been, despite the negative outcome, to have our day in court.
It is important, I think, also to be grateful for Judge Lebous who has sought nothing more than to make a just decision based on his understanding of the facts and his wide knowledge of the law. Sometimes judges and courts do make mistakes, as this one has, but we must always respect and obey the legal decisions of those God has set in positions of authority over us.
If you take the time to read the decision, and I encourage you to do so, you will find that there are a number of rather curious suggestions and I think it is important to address a few of them.
I did not know Mr. Branan but a number of our senior parishioners knew him very well and remember him to have been both very conservative and very loyal to Good Shepherd but not necessarily to the Episcopal Church. In fact, one woman remembers very clearly that he gave the bequest in order to ensure that the congregation never experienced financial difficulty. Another woman who was a very close friend of Mr. Branan recently sent a letter explaining that Mr. Branan wouldn't have wanted a dime to go to the Episcopal Church given the denomination's recent departure from orthodox Christianity. Since Mr. Branan never once mentioned the Diocese of Central New York in his bequest, it is difficult to understand how Judge Lebous could come to the conclusion that Mr. Branan would have wanted his money given to the institution that has sought the destruction of the church he loved?
Be all that as it may, given our earlier defeat in court, we were not expecting to keep the bequest. We have not counted it in our present budget.
Stranger to me than the idea that Mr. Branan was a person loyal to a larger and heretical denomination and not to his local parish was the language used by Judge Libous to describe our conduct. During the hearing, the lawyer for the Diocese of Central New York noted that Good Shepherd received very little in pledges and offerings during 2008 and accused the vestry of “diverting” income. Judge Lebous re-articulates that accusation in the judgment, finds it “disturbing”, and writes that it is appropriate for the diocese to “investigate”.
The reason for the low income, as is fairly obvious, is that after the lawsuit was filed by the Diocese of Central New York claiming possession of all of our property and money, the vast majority of parishioners made personal decisions not to give any money to the church knowing that any money given stood the chance of being seized by the diocese—as it subsequently has been.
And, of course, the vestry did not “divert” money away from Good Shepherd or spend it on anything other than the regular upkeep of the ministries of Good Shepherd—bills, maintenance, salaries, etc. We are more than willing to cooperate fully with any kind of investigation the court thinks necessary.
Finally, Judge Libous mentions items taken from the building. Most of you remember the confusion and frustration in the aftermath of the first court decision when we learned that the building and home we loved was going to be seized. We moved out of the old building mere days after receiving a letter from the Diocese of Central New York asking us to pay rent of over $2500.00 per month. There were a lot of heartbroken and confused people especially with regard to items donated to the church in memory of deceased relatives. Despite the explanations, it was difficult for people to understand that even though a given item may have been purchased with money personally donated for the memory of a deceased relative, donations given to the church belonged, subsequent to the judgment, to the diocese. No one intentionally took anything that belongs to the diocese and the items we have located that were mistakenly taken have been returned.
I've said this before, but let me say again, how proud I am to be your pastor. Jesus said that no servant is above his master and that the world would treat his followers just as it treated him (Matt 10:17-25). We have felt and are feeling the truth of those words. You have stood courageously in the face of lies and persecution and you have accepted the confiscation of your property knowing that you yourselves have a better possession and a lasting one. I am so very amazed at the graciousness and generosity with which you have responded and, indeed, the charity and forgiveness revealed in both word and deed toward the Diocese of Central New York.
God has abundantly blessed us over the last few months. Trust him. He is for us and not against us. I believe that God's loving kindness, gentle protection, and provision will carry us through these trials and for that reason we must continue to be faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ, forgiving and loving those who would hurt us and doing everything in our power to be at peace with all people.
May God bless and keep you.
There is only one quibble with Mr. Moyer's excellent article linked above. He quotes me as saying the following:
"The judge's statement is absolutely not true," said the Rev. Matthew Kennedy..."When Mr. Moyer called I said that the allegations were "absolutely untrue" but I was referring to the diocese's allegations...not the judge's. I don't think Judge Lebous made any allegations