Parishioners Play Waiting Game with Church Closings

The Associated Press, carried in Boston Herald
August 10, 2004

NEWTON, Mass. - Parishes marked for closure by the Boston Archdiocese say church officials are moving too slowly and hampering their ability to challenge the decisions.

The archdiocese plans to close 82 parishes this year as part of a massive restructuring brought on partly by the clergy sex abuse scandal, but so far Archbishop Sean O'Malley has issued closure decrees to just a dozen parishes. Appeals can't be filed until the decree is issued, leaving some parishioners in a holding pattern.

"We're dealing with this relentless, faceless machine that won't give us answers," said Peter Borre, a parishioner at St. Catherine in the Charlestown section of Boston.

Borre and representatives of 10 parishes slated to close met Tuesday at Saint Ignatius parish in Newton in a forum hosted by Voice of the Faithful, a lay group that frequently is at odds with the archdiocese.

St. Catherine is tentatively scheduled to close in November, but other parishes, like St. William in the Dorchester section of the city, have just a few weeks left and still no decree.

"There is a concern that they're trying to wait us out," said Voice spokeswoman Suzanne Morse said. "This has not been the most organized process."

A pending appeal won't prevent a parish from closing as scheduled, but it will prevent the church from selling off the property until the appeal process is complete.

Kathleen Heck, a lawyer hired by the archdiocese to coordinate the closings, said any allegation that the church is trying to delay the appeal process is "totally false."

O'Malley opted to include parishioners in the process - such as deciding on an exact closing date - rather than choosing the date himself.

"He wanted it done in total consultation with people affected by it," Heck said. "Decrees must contain the effective date of closing and the name of the receiving parish. You can't write the decree until you have the information. The archbishop preferred to have that information from the field, as opposed to telling it (to the parishes)."

After the decree is issued, an aggrieved party - the pastor, any parishioner - has 10 days to appeal in a letter to the archbishop. O'Malley then has 30 days to reverse his decision, reject the appeal; no response is the same as rejecting the appeal.

After that, parties have between 10 and 15 days to appeal to the Vatican.

Heck said the archdiocese has held seven information sessions, sent out letters and explained the process in The Pilot, the newspaper of the archdiocese.

"This has been carefully and in great detail shared with everyone affected by closings," she said. "Anyone who states that the decrees are coming out slowly to frustrate the appeals process doesn't understand the appeals process. We've been extremely open and extremely forthcoming, and I would say helpful."

Mary Burns, a parishioner at St. Albert in Weymouth, was incredulous.

"They sent the decree late because they want to help us? Is that what they're saying," Burns said. "Sounds like the archdiocese."

The decree was sent to the parish July 20, and St. Albert appealed. The parish is slated to close Aug. 31, a day after O'Malley's deadline to act on the parish's appeal.

Few of the parishioners Tuesday were optimistic that their appeals would be successful, either in Boston or Rome.

"It's like being on death row and waiting for an execution date," said Borre.