Diocese Pressed on Land Sales

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
May 27, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - A maverick priest who is an advocate for clergy sexual abuse victims said the bishop has the discretion to sell parish properties and use the net profits for the diocese to settle clergy sexual abuse suits.

But diocesan spokesman Mark E. Dupont said the diocese is already exploring sales of properties that could fund settlements.

He also said that although deeds show all church properties are owned by "Roman Catholic Bishop, corporation sole," most properties in the diocese belong by church law to parish communities that helped purchase or build them.

"To project otherwise is just not factually correct," said Dupont.

The Rev. James J. Scahill, an outspoken critic of the Springfield Diocese's handling of clergy sexual abuse, disagrees, saying the bishop, the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, has the discretion and should sell unused and seldom-used properties in the diocese to help fund clergy sexual abuse settlements.

Scahill stands by a letter he wrote this week suggesting that the bishop sell church properties to fund the $14.5 million that Scahill claims the largest group of alleged victims are demanding for settlement. A $7 million offer is on the table for 46 alleged victims.

"The bishop has sole discretion of how proceeds can be disbursed. There are instances when properties or land holdings can be sold and at the discretion of the bishop proceeds be given to the parish involved. But that is not an automatic, it is the sole decision of the bishop," Scahill said.

Dupont said any decisions by the bishop to sell parish properties flies in the face of many Catholics' recent pleas to have more participation in the church

"Also, I'm sure there are a lot of pastors and finance councils at parishes that would take exception to the bishop deciding to sell their properties," Dupont said. Dupont said sales of properties to fund settlements are being explored. He cited the former Our Lady of Hope School on Carew Street, which is being used mainly as headquarters for religious education and diocesan education offices.

"There is commercial interest in the building," Dupont said.

If the building is sold, the offices there would have to be relocated elsewhere, Dupont said.

Money from the sale would go to the diocese per a 1979 agreement between Our Lady of Hope and the diocese.

Warren E. Mason, a parishioner from Scahill's St. Michael's Parish in East Longmeadow, said he found six little-used or unused church properties appraised at $1.9 million in East Longmeadow and several surrounding towns that could be sold.

The properties include St. Joseph's Mission, six acres of unused land at St. Michael's Parish, and 4.8 acres of undeveloped land on Tinkham Road, Wilbraham.

"This is what we discovered with a quick look and conservative professional appraisals in a very small part of the diocese. I'm sure there are dozens of other properties in the diocese," Mason said.

But Dupont cautions a "fire sale" of properties will not serve anyone who is served by the church.

"After the settlements, the church will still be trying to meet the needs of many people - from immigrants to poor children in need of tuition for Catholic school. We have to be mindful of other things," Dupont said.