Episcopal Diocese is ruled owner of Bishop Seabury Church in Groton

A Superior Court judge has ruled that the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut is the rightful owner of Bishop Seabury Church in Groton and that the congregation now occupying the 6.5-acre site must turn over the church and all of its property to the diocese.

The Rev. Ronald Gauss, who retired from the Episcopal church after three decades and led his parish away from the church, said the parish plans to appeal. The split involves Gauss' disagreement over several issues, including the church's approval in 2003 of the ordination of an openly gay Episcopal minister in New Hampshire.

Gauss said Friday that he would be telling the congregation of the court's decision prior to Sunday's service. He added that he would not be surprised if this court battle, and similar ones taking place around the country involving conservative parishes that have split with the church, end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

For now, the case will go to the state appellate court.

"As far as I'm concerned, God is going to take care of it," Gauss said Friday.

Gauss was deposed, or removed as a priest, after the church determined he had formally abandoned it. In 2007, Gauss' congregation became affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

In granting the diocese's motion for summary judgment - a request for a decision without trial - Judge Barry K. Stevens cited a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision and state law that required him to examine the church's system of government to determine whether the diocese held authority over the parish.

"The constitutions and canons of the Episcopal church create a hierarchical religious structure that evidence the general church's interest in local parishes," Stevens wrote.

Stevens wrote that Bishop Seabury Church is held in trust by the diocese and Episcopal church.

Attorney Bradford S. Babbitt, chancellor for the diocese, said there was no dispute that the deed's property was in the parish's name.

"The question was, who gets to control the parish," Babbitt said. "The court said this is a parish of the Episcopal church, always has been and always will be."

Gauss said 780 people are listed on the church rolls. Named for the first bishop of the Episcopal Church, the church was established in 1875. It became an official parish of the diocese in 1956. The church occupied several sites over the years and is located today at 256 North Road.

The judge has ordered Gauss to turn over the real estate as well as the "parish records, reports, vestry minutes, bank accounts, trust accounts, equipment, furniture and furnishings."

k.florin@theday.com

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