Maffei v. Roman Catholic Archbishop Boston, SJC-09807.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation867 N.E.2d 300,449 Mass. 235
Docket NumberNo. SJC-09807.,SJC-09807.
PartiesCatherine R. MAFFEI, individually & as trustee,<SMALL><SUP>1</SUP></SMALL> & others<SMALL><SUP>2</SUP></SMALL> v. ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP OF BOSTON.
Decision Date25 May 2007
867 N.E.2d 300
449 Mass. 235
Catherine R. MAFFEI, individually & as trustee,1 & others2

[867 N.E.2d 301]

No. SJC-09807.
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex.
Argued February 8, 2007.
Decided May 25, 2007.

[867 N.E.2d 305]

Paul S. Hughes, Newton, & Joseph J. Balliro, Jr., for the plaintiffs.

Francis J. O'Connor, Boston (Mark C. Rogers & Wilson D. Rogers, Jr., with him) for the defendant.

Sharon M. Harrington, for Council of Parishes, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

Mary K. Ames & John M. Galvin, for Grace Corrigan & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.



449 Mass. 236

In this case concerning the transfer of real estate and other property from parishioners to their diocese, the plaintiff parishioners ask us, among other claims, to rule that the spiritual authority of a clergy member over members of his faith, without more, gives rise to a cognizable fiduciary relationship, or alternatively a legal relationship of "trust and confidence." We decline to do so.

The case arises from the suppression3 of St. James the Great Parish in Wellesley (St. James) in 2004 by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston (RCAB), a corporation sole. See St. 1897, c. 506. St. James was built in 1958 on an eight-acre parcel of land (property) acquired by the RCAB in 1946 from Waldo M. Maffei (Waldo) and his five siblings. Waldo and his sister voluntarily transferred their respective interests in the property to the RCAB for no monetary payment, and Waldo's four brothers each received $3,000 for their respective shares. In connection with the property transaction, Waldo's wife, Catherine Maffei (Catherine), released her rights of "dower and homestead." The church was named in honor of Waldo's father, James Maffei (James), allegedly in fulfilment of an oral agreement between the RCAB and the Maffei family that the property would "forever" be used as the site of a church so named, although the plaintiffs' verified complaint alleges, and the judge found, that Waldo had been prepared to donate his interest in the property to the RCAB before any alleged oral agreement about the future use of the property was made.

After St. James closed, Catherine, individually, and with her daughter, Maureen Maffei, as trustee of the Waldo M. Maffei Revocable Trust4 (collectively, Maffeis), filed a verified complaint in the Superior Court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief in the form of a resulting or constructive trust on the property in their favor, and for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation. Their claims center on the alleged oral agreement between the Maffei siblings and the RCAB that the property

449 Mass. 237

would be maintained in perpetuity as a church in honor of Waldo's father, as well as on the RCAB's failure to draft a deed reflecting that, if the property were not so used, ownership would revert to the Maffeis. The Maffeis were joined by plaintiff Eileen Hanafin, who sought recovery from the RCAB for alleged negligent misrepresentation in connection with a donation of $35,000 she made to St. James more than two years before its closure.

The claims of all three plaintiffs rest, in whole or in part, on the presumption that

867 N.E.2d 306

the RCAB owed them a legal duty, grounded in the "trust and confidence" inherent (they allege) in the priest-parishioner relationship, to inform them that, under canon law, St. James could be suppressed at a future time. A judge in the Superior Court allowed the RCAB's motion for summary judgment on all counts and dismissed the case. We granted the plaintiffs' application for direct appellate review.

We conclude that summary judgment in the RCAB's favor was proper. First, as we explain below, insofar as the plaintiffs' causes of action are predicated on the alleged fiduciary or confidential relationship between a member of the Roman Catholic Church clergy and his congregants, the claims in this case raise matters of internal church governance that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids us to consider.5 We may not, consistent with the First Amendment, inquire into any alleged pastoral duties owed by the Roman Catholic priesthood to its laity concerning matters of canon law. See, e.g., Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese for the U.S. & Can. v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 710, 96 S.Ct. 2372, 49 L.Ed.2d 151 (1976); Fortin v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, 416 Mass. 781, 785, 625 N.E.2d 1352, cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1142, 114 S.Ct. 2164, 128 L.Ed.2d 887 (1994). Second, to the extent that the plaintiffs' claims pertain to matters legally cognizable in our civil courts, they fail in one or more of their essential elements. See Mass. R. Civ. P. 56, 365 Mass. 824 (1974). We may not address grievances that are insufficiently supported by cognizable evidence.6

1. Facts. We summarize the judge's findings and other uncontested

449 Mass. 238

material of record, as viewed in the plaintiffs' favor. Kourouvacilis v. General Motors Corp., 410 Mass. 706, 716, 575 N.E.2d 734 (1991). The RCAB was incorporated by the Legislature in 1897, and empowered, among other things, to "receive, take and hold, by sale, gift, lease, devise or otherwise, real and personal estate of every description, for religious, charitable and burial purposes, and to manage and dispose of the same for the religious and charitable purposes of the Roman Catholic church." St. 1897, c. 506, § 2. In the 1940's, Reverend Robert H. Lord of St. Paul's Parish in Wellesley sought permission from the RCAB to purchase land to establish a church to serve the needs of the growing Roman Catholic population of East Natick and the adjacent "Fells section" of Wellesley, who were geographically isolated from existing parishes in those towns. The RCAB approved the request, and Reverend Lord began searching for a suitable location for the new church. He soon identified a tract of approximately eight acres of land on the Worcester Turnpike in Wellesley as "the best site—and, indeed, the only good site—for such a church." The land was held in equal shares as tenants in common by James's six children.7

Some time in 1946, Reverend Lord had several conversations with Waldo in Waldo's home during which he inquired about

867 N.E.2d 307

the Maffei family's donating the property to the RCAB for use as the site of a church. The conversations apparently occurred in the presence or within the hearing of Catherine. According to a "statement under oath" that Catherine gave to her attorneys in May, 2005, Waldo told Reverend Lord that he and his sister, Mary Maffei, "don't want anything" for the property.8 Waldo thereafter contacted his sister and four brothers about the RCAB's request, but they rejected it. On the third visit to Waldo's

449 Mass. 239

home,9 in the presence of Catherine, Reverend Lord told Waldo that the church would be named "St. James" in honor of Waldo's father, and that the church would remain a tribute to James "forever." He also told Waldo that the RCAB would pay each of the other four Maffei brothers $3,000 to transfer their respective interests in the property.10 According to Catherine, who is the sole surviving participant of these events,11 during negotiations for the property Reverend Lord did not inform any members of the Maffei family that canon law permitted the closure of the church in the future.12

The Maffei family agreed to transfer the property to the RCAB

449 Mass. 240

for $12,000 (representing payment of $3,000 to each of Waldo's four brothers), a price that amounted to $1,500 per acre.13 The parties

867 N.E.2d 308

did not enter into a purchase and sales agreement, but executed a deed transferring all legal and beneficial interest in the property to the RCAB in exchange "for consideration paid." An attorney hired by the RCAB prepared the deed, which the Maffei siblings, choosing not to be represented by counsel, had the opportunity to read and then signed before a notary in Waldo's home.14 The spouses of the four married Maffei brothers, Catherine among them, also executed the deed, relinquishing their rights of "dower and homestead."15 The deed, in fee simple absolute, makes no reference to naming the church in honor of James. Nor does it recite any alleged agreement concerning using the property "forever" as a church. The deed contains no reservation of rights or right to enter or retake the property. The Maffeis claimed that the family never would have executed the deed had they been informed that the property might not always be used as the locus of a church named for James.

In 1950, the RCAB erected St. James as a parish, and by 1958, a new St. James Church (renamed St. James the Great to avoid confusion with another church in the area) was constructed. Waldo and Catherine, founding parishioners, became heavily involved in the affairs of St. James. Waldo paid $10,000 for the

449 Mass. 241

church altar, and he and his wife frequently volunteered their time and resources to benefit the parish.16 In 2002, the church served approximately 900 families.

By that time, however, questions, real or rumored, had arisen concerning St. James's continued viability. In 1999, an article appeared in a local newspaper stating that the RCAB had included St. James on a list of parish churches to be closed. Shortly thereafter, Reverend George Vartzelis, then pastor of St. James, assured his congregation that the article was incorrect and that St. James would remain open. In June, 2002, the RCAB launched a capital endowment campaign in which each of its 368 parishes was to raise a specific amount in donations. St. James's target was $370,000. In conjunction with the capital campaign, Reverend Vartzelis sent solicitation letters to his parishioners requesting funds for the RCAB campaign, and also asked for $35,000 in donations to refurbish St. James "to keep it as...

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