HUGHSON -- The fight over who controls the money, authority and access to St. Mary's Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East in Hughson moved courtside this week.
Modesto attorney Jack Sodhi filed a restraining order on behalf of the board of directors, which has been locked out of the church on Fox Road. A temporary restraining order was granted Tuesday by Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge William Mayhew and a hearing was slated for Aug. 14.
But a San Jose attorney representing the Baghdad-based patriarch said Sodhi never should have filed the order. Joseph Dworak filed for a jurisdiction change Monday to move the matter to the federal court, where he claims the dispute belongs.
Patriarch Mar Addai II is the spiritual head of St. Mary's denomination, the Ancient Church of the East. He is headquartered in Iraq.
The church has been in a squabble with its leader for two years over a $250,000 loan to a Canadian parish and allegations of sexual impropriety. He arrived in the Hughson area two weeks ago and sent letters to the church's board of directors and pastor, firing them and banning them from entering the church. His supporters, a minority of the church's 180 member families, changed locks twice at the church, covered up recently installed security cameras and tore out an alarm system.
The restraining order against the patriarch; his secretary, Bishop Mar Zaia; and 50 unidentified local supporters would have prohibited them from "interfering with the board of directors carrying out their normal duties," and ordered them to give keys and full access to the church to board members. It also would have forbidden anyone from modifying the church's ownership of a Canadian church's deed.
According to Sodhi, the patriarch overstepped his authority by firing the board of the nonprofit corporation, which comes under California law, and by telling the members they no longer could enter the church. The restraining order was put in limbo, he said, when the patriarch's attorney claimed a "diverse jurisdiction."
"If you're a citizen and resident of California and you're suing a citizen of Iraq, that would be a diverse jurisdiction," Sodhi explained. He does not believe this is such a case, calling it one private party suing another. "We're filing for remand to state court, bringing it back from federal court."
That could take some time, he said.
"Ultimately, we're in the same position," Sodhi said. "I don't think the board was properly dissolved, according to the church's bylaws. We're hoping in the meantime they can still access the church so they can hold services."
A 'violation' by 'dissidents'
The patriarch's attorneys, Dworak in San Jose and Kevin Kelley in Modesto, said the patriarch was well within his rights to remove the pastor and board, and added that the restraining order shouldn't have been filed in light of their jurisdiction motion.
"This is really an ecclesiastical matter," Dworak said Thursday. "The dissidents have violated the constitution by failing to honor the authority of the patriarch."
The jurisdiction removal was a blow to the board and ousted priest, who had planned to hold services in the church Sunday, their first time back in three weeks.
"We will be conducting the Mass with Father Edward (Bakos). He's been fired by the patriarch, but we don't care; he's still our pastor," said board vice president Kay Maksoud on Thursday before she heard about the jurisdiction change. "Anybody who wants to come is welcome. We're not going to throw anybody out."
Kelly said the keys held by the patriarch's side had been surrendered to the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department earlier Thursday. He wasn't sure who would be worshipping in the church Sunday.
"Unfortunately, things are a mess," Dworak said.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.