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New hope for Scituate church:
St. Frances parishioners celebrate, but archdiocese says tribunal ruling changes nothing

The Patriot Ledger

SCITUATE - Parishioners at the closed St. Frances X. Cabrini Church faxed two requests Friday to Cardinal Sean O’Malley, 596 days into their around-the-clock vigil: Give us a pastor and open our doors.

The pleas and the parishioners’ efforts to save their church come with renewed vigor after a Vatican tribunal on Thursday issued a decree to St. Frances, Star of the Sea in Quincy and four other Boston-area parishes about how the churches should be treated while it decides their fate.

By issuing the decree, the Apostolic Signatura is allowing an appeal by St. Frances parishioners to move forward rather than shooting it down without consideration. In effect, it confirms that parishioners have a case.

‘‘We’re incredibly excited,’’ said Jonathan Rogers, one of the parishioners. ‘‘I look at this as a great win for us. We’re still in the game.’’

But church officials and parishioners disagree on whether the edict will force Cardinal O’Malley to reopen the church.

Mark O’Connell, a canon lawyer for the Boston Catholic Archdiocese, said the ruling will have no immediate effect. The decree says that since Cardinal O’Malley has already said he will not sell the church and property while its status is under appeal, he has effectively suspended his original suppression decree, O’Connell said.

‘‘Rome has reaffirmed what the cardinal has already done, in terms of not touching the assets,’’ O’Connell said. ‘‘They asked to have the (closure) suspended. Rome said no. He’s already done what he needs to do.’’

But parishioners said that this makes a big difference - the difference between saying Cardinal O’Malley won’t touch the assets and being told he can’t touch the assets.

‘‘I think that we’re now justified in asking for a pastor. We’re justified in asking for a Mass, we’re justified in being open,’’ Rogers said. ‘‘This neutralizes his original decree.’’

‘‘We’re not going to leave, anyhow,’’ parishioner Margaret O’Brien said as she took her turn keeping watch at the church.

O’Connell, the lawyer from the archdiocese, called the idea that the decree will force Cardinal O’Malley to reopen the church ‘‘bogus.’’

St. Frances was closed in October 2004 as part of a massive restructuring of the Boston Catholic Archdiocese resulting from the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

The church lies on a 30-acres piece of land within walking distance of the ocean.

More than 80 churches are slated to be closed. St. Frances is one of nine being occupied by parishioners.

In January, a lower Vatican tribunal upheld Cardinal O’Malley’s decision to close the church. Parishioners filed an appeal to the Apostolic Signatura, a higher tribunal, which could take years to make a decision.

A canon law expert said that in general, it is not unusual for the Signatura to freeze a situation while deciding a case.

‘‘In any case, the underlying idea is that while the recourse is pending, no further action is taken. That’s the bottom line,’’ said Kurt Martens, an assistant professor in the school of canon law at the Catholic University of America, emphasizing he did not know the particulars of the case. ‘‘If they would say go ahead and close; if the outcome would be that O’Malley’s decision is found illegal, then you’d have to restore the church.’’

Martens declined to speculate on what the recent decree may mean for the future of the parishioners’ appeal.

St. Frances parishioners also have a civil court case at Suffolk Superior Court.

Last fall, a judge refused to stop the sale of the church, but allowed a notice called a lis pendens that the ownership of the property was under contention.

Parishioners are ultimately asking that they, rather than the Boston Archdiocese, be declared owners of the property.

In a similar case, a federal judge in Washington ruled on Thursday that individual parishes in the Diocese of Spokane, Wash., are not owned by the bishop and cannot be sold by him to pay settlements for clergy abuse victims.

The next court hearing for St. Frances parishioners is scheduled for July 13.

Diana Schoberg may be reached at dschoberg@ledger.com .

Copyright 2006 The Patriot Ledger
Transmitted Saturday, June 17, 2006