Boston Archdiocese to Close Underused Parishes

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post [Boston MA]
December 17, 2003

BOSTON, Dec. 16 -- The leader of Boston's Catholic Archdiocese on Tuesday outlined plans to close underutilized parishes, the latest in a series of attempts by the church to overcome financial troubles exacerbated by revelations of sexual abuse by its priests.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley told a gathering of about 600 Boston area priests that the parish closings are necessary because of a decline in church attendance, the archdiocese's financial condition and a shortage of priests. He gave no details on the number of parishes that would be closed, though some priests have speculated that several dozen of the region's 358 parishes will be affected.

In announcing the closings, O'Malley also made a plea for unity among the clergy, a theme he has echoed repeatedly since he took the helm of the nation's fourth-largest Catholic archdiocese in July and quickly helped broker an $85 million settlement with more than 500 abuse victims.

"I want the Catholics to realize we are family and we must see ourselves as something bigger than our own parishes," O'Malley said. He added that while "the cost of the [abuse] settlement has nothing to do with the challenge of parish closings and reconfiguration," the changes were accelerated by the abuse crisis.

A statement from Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group formed in response to the nationwide abuse crisis, in the city where it began, said, "given that the sex abuse crisis has impacted the economic viability of both parishes and the diocese, it is an indirect driver [of the parish closings]."

The parish closings will begin with a first wave June 1, 2004. Further changes will be announced Aug. 1 and Oct. 1. No new pastors will be named or nonessential expenditures by parishes authorized, O'Malley said, until the process is complete.

Churches serving immigrant communities and those attached to parochial schools will be less likely candidates for closure, he said. Attendance at Mass and the financial condition of each individual church will play a major role in what he acknowledged could be a painful process for parishioners and clergy.

"It is a very sad moment, but unfortunately, it is a very necessary one," he said.

Priests who attended the meeting agreed that the closings were inevitable. "There are too many churches in some places and not enough people," said Robert W. Bullock, head of the Boston Priests Forum and the pastor of the Our Lady of the Sorrows church in suburban Sharon.

Already this month, the church has taken several other steps toward shoring up its beleaguered finances.

The archdiocese has said that the bulk of the settlement money will come from insurance policies and from the sale of 27.6 acres of church property in Brighton -- a neighborhood in the western part of the city -- including the elaborate Italian-style mansion where leaders of Boston's archdiocese have resided for 75 years. Unlike his predecessors, O'Malley declined to live in the palazzo, which had become a symbol of the rift between church officials and its lay community during the abuse scandal.

With the first settlement checks to be sent to abuse victims next week -- before the sale of any properties is completed -- the church borrowed money by mortgaging two of its most valuable assets last week: the St. John's Seminary, in Brighton; and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, in Boston's South End.

O'Malley has also taken steps to improve relations with lay Catholics, whose support will be critical to boosting the church's financial standing. Sunday offertory donations by Boston parishioners fell by 8 percent in the year after the abuse scandal broke, and donations to the archdiocese's annual appeal fell to $8.8 million in 2002, from $16 million a year earlier.

Last month, O'Malley met with representatives of Voice of the Faithful, which was banned from church property in 2002 by Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned as head of the archdiocese a year ago.

"We didn't want the parish closings to be a throwback to the times when the decisions were made in a vacuum and handed down to the laity," said Mike Emerton, a Voice of the Faithful spokesman. "Under O'Malley, an open and honest dialogue has been exhibited."

Nationally, the number of Roman Catholic parishes has declined by 250 over the past eight years -- falling from 19,331 in 1995 to 19,081 this year -- as the church population has shifted from inner cities to suburbs, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"The challenge in the urban areas is that, in many cases, the Italians had a parish, the Germans had a parish and the Irish had a parish, all within a few blocks," Walsh said. "And now, a lot of the Catholics have moved to the suburbs." In Boston, about 50 parishes have been closed or merged over 20 years.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.