Sales Net Diocese $2.7 Million

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
May 26, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has netted a profit of $2.7 million in property sales and purchases in the past few years, and a maverick priest says more properties could be sold to settle clergy sexual abuse claims.

But the diocese said most of the properties sold were parish-held, and their sales have benefited parish communities, not the diocese at large.

The potential sale of properties was raised this week when a clergy sexual abuse plaintiff quoted the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, bishop of the Springfield Diocese, as saying, "If we had land, I would sell it in a minute to settle this," referring to ongoing mediation between the diocese and alleged clergy sexual abuse victims.

The Rev. James J. Scahill, an outspoken critic of the church's handling of clergy sexual abuse, sent McDonnell a letter yesterday suggesting unused or little-used properties that could be sold in East Longmeadow, Wilbraham, Springfield and elsewhere to fund settlements.

A diocesan spokesman said possible property sales have been investigated as a way to help in any potential settlements, but most of Scahill's suggested properties, as well as most other church properties in the diocese, are parish-owned.

"There are some solely owned diocesan properties, but with 120 parishes and missions the vast majority of properties are parish-held," said spokesman Mark E. Dupont.

McDonnell had no comment on Scahill's letter.

Regardless, Scahill, whose parish has been withholding money from the bishop's office for two years to protest the diocese's financial support of defrocked priest and convicted child molester Richard R. Lavigne, urged McDonnell to settle with victims for more than twice the diocese's current offer to the largest group of alleged victims.

"The victims I believe are seeking $14.5 million and they should not be compromised, ongoingly maligned, manipulated and abused by an institution that placed them in harms way and covered up its protection of pedophiles and abusers of minors," Scahill wrote in the letter.

Mediator Paul A. Finn, who brokered an $85 million settlement between some 550 victims and the Boston archdiocese last year, said he does not share Scahill's position.

"I cannot and will not comment about the mediation process ongoing in Springfield other than to say the process is still ongoing," said Finn, who works for Commonwealth Mediation. "Father Scahill is entitled to voice an opinion as he sees it, but under no circumstances do I or anyone associated with Commonwealth Mediation adopt his position."

The Republican reported yesterday the diocese has offered $7 million to settle clergy abuse claims with 46 clients of Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski.

Settlement talks have yet to begin with at least a dozen other alleged victims of clergy abuse represented by other lawyers.

The diocese sold 21 properties for a total $3.4 million since January 2000 and purchased properties for $701,902, according to an analysis of deed transactions by The Republican.

Sales and purchases in Berkshire County are not included in the figures.

Although most sales benefited individual parishes, Dupont pointed to a $450,000 sale of property of defunct parish Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ware that could have benefited the diocese.

However, Dupont said, "Even after the sale of this property, the diocese still lost $80,000 because of parish debt and demolition costs."

McDonnell remains optimistic of a successful resolution to the mediation, Dupont said.

The $7 million offer would mean an average settlement of $152,174 per person, excluding lawyer fees.

"At the current $7 million offer - the victims will receive far less than the church has given over 12 years to Richard Lavigne (approx. $300,000)," Scahill wrote in his letter to McDonnell. "Other violators in their lifetime receive more from this church than the victims they so atrociously violated in heart, spirit and body."

Scahill said there are other diocesan-owned properties, such as the closed St. Francis Chapel in downtown Springfield.

Dupont said Springfield diocesan officials are watching the Boston archdiocese as it closes parishes and sells off some properties in the midst of a financial crisis caused in part by the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

However, Dupont said major differences exist between Boston and Springfield.

For many years, the Springfield diocese has adjusted to the changing demographics in Western Massachusetts and the shortage of priests by yoking and merging smaller neighboring parishes and closing some, he said. In Boston, few, if any adjustments have been made in recent years.

"There may be something for us to learn as we observe what is occurring in Boston," Dupont said.

The Springfield diocese has refused to supply an inventory of its financial holdings to The Republican. Stobierski has made a similar request.