A specialized tribunal in Quebec recently decided in Dubois v. Diocèse de Trois-Rivières that a parish priest was neither in the employment of the diocese that appointed him nor the parish corporation for which he was selected to perform his services. Tasked with determining whether an employment relationship existed under the Quebec Occupational Work and Safety Act (the “Act”), the Tribunal concluded that the relationship was a spiritual one and effectively denied the priest’s claim.
Through his appeal to the Tribunal, the priest was seeking compensation for the pulmonary disease and asthma, the state of general anxiety and depression, as well as the posttraumatic stress disorder he suffered during the course of his tenure as parish priest. There quickly ensued a debate between the bishopric that appointed him and the parish corporation that ensured the payment of the services rendered, as to who would foot the bill.
In her reasons inspired in part by canon law, Commissioner Lajoie found no employment relationship for either party. For the Tribunal, it could hardly have been said that the priest’s evangelical mission could have been equated to a work relationship, even less to an employment contract. The tasks performed by the priest consisted of pastoral mandates that came within the scope of a spiritual and religious vocation. Priests act on behalf of the Catholic Church to the benefit and enlightenment of their parishes and parishioners. They do not perform work within the meaning of the Act. Moreover, the Tribunal found that there was no subordination between the priest and the bishop nor the parish corporation. The relationship between the priest and the bishop was spiritual in nature and closer to a paternal connection than to a legal relationship. Even though the relationship between the priest and the parish corporation was more commercial in nature in that the parish supplied the priest’s salary and other religious items, the corporation exerted no control over the priest’s activities nor divine ministry.
This decision sends a message to the priests whose responsibilities tender more to the immaterial than the legal world : their religious services are more likely to fall within the spiritual realm than the contractual sphere.
*The author would like to thank Josée Beaudoin, Articling Student at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP for her contribution to this post.