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Episcopal Diocese sues Attleboro dissidents

The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, faced with the prospect of conservatives bolting the denomination over its support for gay rights, is taking a newly tough stance against would-be schismatics, filing suit to freeze the bank account of a breakaway group in Attleboro.

The diocese, which filed the suit Tuesday in Bristol Superior Court in Taunton, is alleging that in the months leading up to a split in Attleboro, the parishioners secreted away about $200,000 that rightfully belongs to the Episcopal Church.

"It's our contention that property and assets were taken," said the Rev. Gregory A. Jacobs, staff officer for urban congregations and ministry development in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. "It's not an insignificant amount of money, and without that money it's difficult for this congregation to plan for its financial future."

The breakaway parishioners, who have formed a new congregation affiliated with the Anglican Church of Rwanda, declined through their attorney to respond yesterday, but the two sides are already scheduled to meet in court next week.

The dispute is a local manifestation of a broad national controversy triggered by the Episcopal Church USA's decision to confirm the election of an openly gay priest, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire.

Some congregations are now attempting to break away from the Episcopal Church, which is the American province of the global Anglican communion, and to align with more conservative Anglican provinces in Africa or elsewhere.

Episcopal dioceses throughout the country are fighting to hang onto buildings and other property.

In Attleboro, there are now two congregations, All Saints Anglican and All Saints Episcopal.

The Anglican congregation, which is made up of the former rector and many of the former members of the Episcopal parish, is affiliated with the Anglican Mission in The Americas, which describes itself as a missionary outreach of the Anglican Church of Rwanda.

The Episcopal congregation is made up largely of new worshipers and a part-time priest brought in by the Episcopal Diocese.

The breakaway congregants left the North Main Street church in January; the next week, the Episcopal Diocese established the new congregation in the building.

Although the Episcopal Diocese retains the building of All Saints Episcopal Church, the diocese says it remains uncertain about what happened to other property, such as desks and computers, as well as cash, that it says belonged to the church.

The breakaway parishioners are represented by attorney John F.D. Jacobi III, who declined to comment and said he had advised the parishioners not to comment.

In its claim, the diocese said that over an 11-month period last year, the parish's rector at the time, the Rev. Lance Giuffrida, and the parish's vestry transferred $111,863.36 from the church's treasury to an organization called The Lesser Franciscans Inc., an organization founded in late 2004 with offices at Giuffrida's house and governed by members of the parish's former vestry.

The diocese also alleged that the parish spent $85,000 on unknown expenses and gave the Giuffridas a $10,000 loan.

The diocese is asking the court to order the departed parishioners to turn over all the records of the church to the diocese and to repay the missing money.

Until the case can be argued, the diocese intends to ask for a preliminary injunction freezing the Anglicans' bank account.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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