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Vatican ruling bad news for parish-closing opponents

O'Malley supported in rejected appeal

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff | February 27, 2008

In a decree that is dimming the hopes of Catholics who have challenged the closings of parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, the Vatican's highest tribunal has refused an appeal brought by parishioners whose church in Lowell was closed by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley four years ago.

Parishioners fighting the closings said they would continue their effort in the Vatican and in civil courts in Boston. But they acknowledged that the ruling, issued in Latin, dismisses their arguments that O'Malley violated canon laws by closing the church, and instead expresses support for O'Malley's argument that he needed to close parishes for the good of the archdiocese.

Although the ruling applies only to St. Jeanne d'Arc in Lowell, the advocates for Catholics fighting parish closings view the ruling as a likely indicator of how the Vatican will rule on other challenges brought in response to O'Malley's 2004 decision to close scores of parishes. Parishioners from 10 of those closed parishes have appealed their closings to the Vatican tribunal, called the Apostolic Signatura. Five closed parishes have been occupied by protesters for as long as 40 months.

"This is ominous for any parish," said Bill Bannon, a critic of the parish closings whose own parish, in Sudbury, was closed by O'Malley and then reopened in a diminished canonical status after protesters occupied the building. "It just reeks of an uneven playing field."

Archdiocesan officials said yesterday that they did not have a translation of the ruling and could not comment in detail, but that they did not believe it had any implications beyond Lowell. The Globe obtained a copy of the ruling in Latin from the Council of Parishes and hired a translator to produce an English-language version; the Council of Parishes, a coalition of parishioners resisting some of the parish closings, obtained a separate translation of the document. The two translations were in agreement.

Peter Borre, the chairman of the Council of Parishes, decried the ruling, saying, "This tells Catholic America that no parish is safe - it means that under financial duress, any bishop can appropriate any parish, and that's a big issue."

The parishioners are continuing to press their challenges with the Vatican, and members of five closed parishes have filed civil suits against the archdiocese.

But Borre also signaled that his organization is looking to the future, saying, "without standing down prematurely, we do have to look seriously at some alternatives, and we are still trying to find a negotiated endgame."

Borre said his organization would like the archdiocese to allow the closed parishes to continue to exist as functioning, and officially Catholic, worship spaces, with visiting priests to say Mass, provided that the worshipers can finance their operations.

Parishioners who are challenging the closings, many of whom had reviewed the ruling based on the translation done by the Council of Parishes, expressed dismay.

"There are specific canons that say you cannot suppress a viable parish, but in this decree there is no discussion of those canons - instead, without any specific canonical reference, they just say the archbishop can suppress parishes for the greater good of the diocese as he considers it," said Paul Hughes, a leader of the protesters occupying the closed St. James the Great parish in Wellesley. "To me it's a reflection of the comparison of how the Catholic religion was back in the era of Pope John XXIII, when it was vibrant and strong, and the Catholic religion we have today, which reflects a defensive posture and a rigid structure."

Opponents of the parish closings say they are particularly angry that a canon law expert representing the archdiocese's interests before the tribunal is quoted in writing as saying that O'Malley had been given "maximum discretion" by the Vatican to save the archdiocese "from monetary ruin" provoked in part "by the sexual abuse crisis." The advocates for the closed parishes say that assertion contradicts O'Malley's repeated assertion that parishes were not closed to pay abuse settlements, but rather because of dwindling numbers of priests, falling attendance at Mass, and insufficient financial resources.

O'Malley's spokesman, Terrence C. Donilon, said yesterday that "there's no evidence anybody under any circumstance would say that," but did not offer an alternative version of what the advocate said.

The decision not to hear the case was issued by a panel of some of the judges of the Apostolic Signatura, and the Lowell parishioners have now appealed to the full tribunal. They believe they can also challenge any effort by O'Malley to declare the church buildings suitable for "profane use" - as something other than a church.

"Obviously we're disappointed in the decision not to review it, but we're not dissuaded from moving forward, and we're hopeful that at some point someone is going to look at the situation as a whole and realize that a mistake was made," said Joe Clermont, a lawyer who was the chairman of the finance council at the Lowell parish and who is now a leader of the parishioners opposing the closing. The Lowell parish was established in 1922 to serve French-speaking immigrants; its parishioners did not occupy the closed building and did not file a civil suit.

In Scituate, a leader of the protesters occupying the closed St. Frances Xavier Cabrini said parishioners there will also appeal any adverse rulings.

"We started this whole process with the commitment that we would exhaust every single option of appeal on every level, and we still have a huge way to go," said Jon Rogers. "Our goal is to reopen our church, to keep our faith community growing, and, hopefully, to reestablish some relationship with the archdiocese."

Elsewhere in the country, a few bishops have turned to police to remove protesters from closed churches. But in Boston, where the archdiocese says it is spending $880,000 a year to maintain the closed but contested parishes, church officials are still striking a conciliatory tone.

"Our basic posture remains that we are allowing the civil and canonical course to take place, and a peaceful resolution is what we are working towards," said the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, the archdiocese's vicar general.

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