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AG Gains Oversight of Assets at Parishes
In closings, diocese opens up fund review

By Michael Paulson
Boston Globe
August 19, 2004

http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/
2004/08/19/ag_gains_oversight_of_assets_at_parishes/

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, charged by law with overseeing the proper use of charitable funds, is stepping in to help regulate the disposition of millions of dollars in money and gifts held by 82 parishes the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is closing this year.

Two top officials in Reilly's office yesterday told a Suffolk Superior Court judge that they have been having discussions with archdiocesan officials about the use of a variety of funds held by closing parishes and that they are looking hard for indications that money held by the parishes may be restricted in ways that would prevent the Archdiocese from using it.

The archdiocese's general counsel, Wilson D. Rogers Jr., told the judge that the archdiocese will not spend contested parish funds without consulting with Reilly.

In June, the archdiocese had agreed to consult with Reilly's office on the handling of about $100,000 controlled by a closing Catholic school in Boston, St. Peter's. Yesterday, Rogers indicated that the consultation is far broader and said he expects that the archdiocese will seek court approval this fall of an overall plan for using all money that may have been restricted when it was given to parishes. Reilly's aides, Public Protection Division chief Jamie W. Katz and Johanna Soris of the Division of Public Charities, said they will work with the archdiocese on the court filing.

Neither side said how much money is at stake, but Rogers called it "a large number of funds and gifts."

Rogers said the archdiocese has already set aside, until the attorney general can be consulted, all the money given to parishes as their share of a $200 million capital campaign called Promise for Tomorrow, an archdiocesan fund-raising effort in which parishes were promised a percentage of the money they raised.

While Reilly routinely plays a role in the distribution of assets of charities that close, his role overseeing contested parish funds represents his most significant engagement in the affairs of the Catholic Church. The relationship between his office and church officials has been tense, with Reilly issuing a scathing report about the archdiocese's handling of sexually abusive priests. Some parishioners and priests have called on him to block the closings, but as recently as last week he has warned that church-state separation sharply restricts his role.

The attorney general's office and the archdiocese described their roles during a 90-minute hearing in the first civil lawsuit brought against the archdiocese by supporters of one of the closing parishes. In the lawsuit, a group of Italian-American Catholics are trying to prevent the archdiocese from using $1.9 million in 14 bank accounts associated with Sacred Heart Church in the North End.

As a result of the assurances by the archdiocese and the attorney general's office, the judge, Suffolk Superior Court Associate Justice Mitchell J. Sikora Jr., declined to bar the archdiocese from taking the Sacred Heart money. Sikora called the archdiocese, as well as the attorney general, "presumptively trustworthy," prompting derisive snickers from some of the two dozen Sacred Heart parishioners packed into the tiny courtroom in Post Office Square.

The Sacred Heart case is unusual because the church sits on land entrusted to the archdiocese in 1888 by a group of Italian Catholics, the Societa Cattolica Italiana di San Marco, with a deed that states the land is to be used "for divine worship for the use and benefit of the Italian Roman Catholics of Boston who may desire to worship with the parish of the Sacred Heart."

The lawyer for the San Marco Society, Austin S. O'Toole, argued that the money gathered by the parish over the last 116 years belongs to the parishioners. O'Toole said the archdiocese "seeks to swoop in, shut down the parish, and seize the assets."

But Rogers said that parish money belongs to the archdiocese, which over the years has merely granted power of attorney to the pastors who oversee parish finances.

Sikora, who last week issued a temporary restraining order barring the archdiocese from using the parish's money, declined yesterday to issue a preliminary injunction continuing that prohibition, saying that he trusted that the archdiocese, the attorney general, and the lawyer for the San Marco Society would be able to ensure that the archdiocese spends the money properly.

But Sacred Heart parishioners were infuriated by Sikora's ruling, accusing the archdiocese of theft, fraud, and deceit. The parish looms over the cobblestone North Square just a few doors from Paul Revere's house, and its parishioners are waging a furious fight to save their beloved church.

"They're breaking one of the biggest commandments, by stealing," said Donna Del Peschio, 31, a parishioner at Sacred Heart with a child at the parish school, St. John's, which is being transferred to a neighboring parish. "That's money we raised, that we never would have given to the archdiocese."

Sacred Heart is unusual in several respects. Not only does it have the restrictive 19th century deed, but the parish is a national parish, set aside at its creation to serve not a neighborhood but an ethnic group, Italian-Americans in this case. And the parish has always been served not by archdiocesan priests, but by an Italian religious order, the Scalabrini Fathers, who also oversee another Italian parish, St. Anthony in Everett.

Acknowledging the unusual deed, the archdiocese has proposed to end Sacred Heart's use as a parish Aug. 29, but to allow the building to remain open for worship. Rogers said the pastor, the Rev. Vincenzo Rosato, will then be reassigned by his religious order outside the archdiocese, a fate that also befell two Franciscan priests who worked at an Italian parish in Marlborough, St. Ann, where parishioners were fighting closure.

Rosato told the court he has offered to stay in Boston, but has heard no response from Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley. "A lot of problems have been created because of a lack of communication," Rosato said. He said he doesn't know what to tell couples planning to get married this fall in the church or people who have requested Masses for special purposes, because there is no priest assigned there after Aug. 29.

After the hearing, parishioners said they believe the archdiocese will try to "starve us out," as Del Peschio said, by allocating no clergy members and no money to the community. But a spokesman for the archdiocese, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said that the archdiocese is doing no such thing and that the archdiocese will arrange for priests to perform weddings and special Masses, as well as to celebrate Mass at the building.

The case is being closely watched by other parishes that are considering bringing lawsuits against the archdiocese to block closings, a longshot strategy, given the US courts' historic reluctance to get involved in church disputes because of the US Constitution's guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Sikora expressed concern about that issue yesterday.

But lawyers for both sides appeared to acknowledge that the use of charitable funds is an area in which the government has an oversight role.

At least two members of other closing parishes sat in the courtroom yesterday watching the proceedings, and several parishes have been consulting with lawyers. Rogers acknowledged the implications of the dispute, saying that the handling of restricted funds is a major issue and telling the judge, "This issue is a lot bigger than Sacred Heart parish."

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

 
 

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