By Patrick B. Craine

PETERBOROUGH, Ontario, September 11, 2009 ( – The Bishop of Peterborough, Nicola De Angelis, has written a pastoral letter to the faithful of his diocese addressing a recent complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT), brought against the bishop and twelve local parishioners.  In the letter, which is to be distributed at Sunday Masses this weekend, the bishop strongly redresses the OHRT's encroachment, asserting his authority as bishop of his diocese and the autonomy of the Church from state control over internal Church matters.

This past April, Bishop de Angelis directed St. Michael's pastor, Fr. Allan Hood, to dismiss Jim Corcoran from altar serving at the parish; this came after a letter was submitted to him by 12 parishioners, who were concerned about public scandal because it was known that Corcoran lives with his same-sex partner.

Corcoran, who had originally been asked to serve by Fr. Hood, filed a complaint against the bishop and the twelve parishioners on June 17th, alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The respondents, including the bishop, were then required to defend themselves to the OHRT through written responses.

In this weekend's letter the bishop writes: “I fail to understand how secular powers and government agencies should think they are in a position to tell the Church that she is wrong in her internal rules and regulations, even though these have directed and shaped the life of the Church during the last 2000 years.  However, this is what we face today.”

“If the Human Rights Tribunal should choose to interfere with the Church's governance, this will be most shocking,” he writes.  “The Tribunal has no authority to place itself as an arbiter of canonical precepts.”

De Angelis insists that the teaching of the Church is that holding a volunteer position in the Church – as an altar server or in any other function – is not a “right.”  “Rather, it is an invitation from the pastor or bishop, which can also be terminated at any time, particularly, when the voluntary service gives rise to tension, animosity, discord, or division in the life of a parish.”

The bishop points to a 2001 letter on altar servers from the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, then Cardinal Jorge A. Medina Estevez, who “stressed that no one has a 'right' to serve at the altar and strongly reaffirmed that altar boys should be encouraged, in view of fostering vocations to the priesthood.”

Through interviews with Corcoran, LSN discovered that it was a member of the human rights system itself that advised Corcoran to proceed with his complaint and who dug up precedent to support his case.

The Ontario system last year divided itself into three distinct agencies – the Commission, the Tribunal, and the Legal Support Centre. That practical result is that this allows the Legal Support Centre to advise people on how to bring forward human rights complaints, without the Commission or the Tribunal having to face responsibility.  Corcoran confirmed with LSN that the member who advised him was from the Legal Support Centre.

In response to LSN's first story on Corcoran's case, the Commission denied its involvement, pointing instead to the new system. The Tribunal, further, denied any responsibility for the case being brought against the Church.  Asked why they had taken on the case, Margaret Leighton, counsel to the Chair of the Tribunal, told LSN, “The Tribunal didn't take on the case.  The applicant filed an application and the Tribunal has no capacity to refuse an application which falls under our jurisdiction.

“There may be an issue as to whether or not the allegations are within our jurisdiction,” she continued, “but that's something that we will have to adjudicate and would be for the parties to make their submissions on before we made a determination.”

Nevertheless, the Tribunal evidently deemed that it had enough jurisdiction to require the bishop to explain his actions.

In his letter, Bishop De Angelis explains that Corcoran was merely one of a number of volunteers at St. Michael's who he had asked to step down in the interest of “restor[ing] peace, harmony and reconciliation in the parish.”

“My friends, I can honestly say that I treated all the volunteers the same, with equal respect and dignity,” he wrote.  “I am at a loss to understand how there has been any misinterpretation of a practical decision made with honesty and without any discrimination.”

Although the bishop never names Corcoran, he told the Peterborough Examiner that he perceived the bishop as bringing attention to him and painting him as a bad Catholic. The letter, he said, is “firstly bringing the attention to me once again and, secondly, identifying me as an abhorrent, disobedient Catholic.”

In LSN's first interview with Corcoran in July, he insisted that his complaint was not about Bishop De Angelis. However, Corcoran is now threatening legal action against the bishop.

“The bishop may be subjecting himself to the possibility of a lawsuit,” he told the Examiner.

In July the Catholic Civil Rights League supported Bishop De Angelis, and blasted the OHRC for meddling in church politics.  This issue is “not an OHRC [Ontario Human Rights Commission] matter,” they said.  “The relationship between the Church and altar servers, in the League's opinion, has none of the attributes that would make it a subject for a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.”

“No one serves on the altar as a right,” they wrote. “The decision about who can serve on the altar is a matter of Church governance.”

Contact Information:

Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario
655 Bay Street, 14th Floor
Toronto, ON
M7A 2A3
Phone: 416-326-1312
Toll-Free: 1-866-598-0322

See related coverage:

Homosexual Ex-Altar Server Demands Bishop Apologize, Publicly Chastise Parishioners in Human Rights Complaint