Archdiocese has millions in unused property
By Jack Sullivan and Eric Convey
Dirigo Spice runs its operations from a rented building in Dorchester valued at $1.7 million.
The New England Institute of Acupuncture has its campus on leased Watertown property worth $3.6 million while the Massage Therapy Institute in Cambridge has classes and offices in a $6.7 million complex on Rindge Avenue.
The landlord for all those buildings, one of the largest non- government property owners in Massachusetts, also holds title to more than 40 acres of prime real estate in the middle of a tony development in Hingham that could fetch up to $3 million.
But the entity that owns all of this property - and many hundreds of
millions of dollars more - has cut its operating budget by 40 percent,
backed out of a proposed settlement with the victims of one its employees,
and said it's contemplating bankruptcy.
"This seriously undermines their assertion that they did not have the financial wherewithal to go through with the settlement," said Frederic L. Ellis of Ellis & Rapacki, a civil litigation attorney who is not involved in any suit against the church. "Their credibility is undermined by these findings."
Archdiocese officials from Bernard Cardinal Law on down have said that with the spiraling number of alleged victims coming forward, a proposed $15 million to $30 million settlement deal with those abused by defrocked priest John J. Geoghan that was rejected by the Finance Council would have crippled the church.
"(The Finance Council's) concern was based on the fact that the proposed settlement would consume substantially all of the resources of the Archdiocese that can reasonably be made available and therefore, such an action would leave the Archdiocese unable to provide a just and proportionate response," according to a statement by Chancellor David W. Smith when the settlement was abruptly rejected in May.
A Suffolk Superior Court judge is awaiting briefs at the end of the week to decide if Law and the archdiocese are bound by the agreement, as Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney for the 86 Geoghan plaintiffs, contends.
Smith, the Boston See's main money man, has said in interviews and in testimony that the archdiocese would be forced to close schools and churches if Judge Constance Sweeney rules the settlement was a binding agreement.
"We are not going to mortgage churches, schools or hospitals," Smith told the Herald after the Finance Council's vote. "We just won't do it."
Smith was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Donna Morrissey, the spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she could not answer questions after asking that the questions be e- mailed to her.
But using figures from the assessor's office in each of the 144 communities, the Herald found $159,393,996 in property unrelated to the operation of any active church, school, cemetery or hospital owned by the archdiocese.
Selling off that property, even at assessed value alone, plus the estimated $40 million in insurance money church officials have said is available would easily cover the Geoghan settlement and provide enough money for the estimated 400 remaining victims without affecting active parishes, said experts.
Thomas Bean, a partner with Nutter, McLellan & Fish who also heads the Boston Bar Association's bankruptcy section, said even if the archdiocese follows through on its bankruptcy threat, that would not necessarily let officials off the hook or save its property.
"It all depends on who owns the properties and what entities file for bankruptcy," said Bean. "If the owner of the property is a defendant against whom a judgment is claimed then the plaintiffs could proceed against the properties."
All the properties found by the Herald list the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, a Corporation Sole, as the owner. The corporation and Law are two of the defendants in the lawsuit by Geoghan victims as well as other priests' victims.
Bean, who said the church appears to be "land rich and cash poor," said officials might be forced to sell some of its land to satisfy a judgment.
"The only way to pay it might be to liquidate property and pay the settlement," said Bean. "Inside a bankruptcy, the court can authorize the debtor to sell land to raise cash."
The amount realized from selling the property could be many times higher than the assessed value if the archdiocese sold the buildings and land in the current "red hot" real estate market, according to realtors in eastern Massachusetts.
"People are pulling their money out of the stock market and putting it into residential development," said Sean Keanelly, vice president of Key Real Estate in Quincy, a leading commercial realtor on the South Shore. "That area is red hot right now. The market for real estate for Quincy and in the South Shore hasn't been hurt by the economy."
Shuttered schools, empty parish halls, closed convents, undeveloped land and buildings rented to sectarian organizations and businesses are sprinkled throughout the archdiocese.
The cardinal's residence along with the chancery offices and St. John's Seminary sit on a plush and sprawling 1.9 million square foot plot on Lake Street and Commonwealth Avenue, valued by Boston assessors at $28.3 million. Smith has said the archdiocese would consider selling the property, which could fetch $100 million on the open market, if there was "suitable property" to replace it.
While the chancery may be the best known and most valuable of the church's holdings in Boston, which exceed $250 million total, there are numerous other buildings in the city that the church has either shuttered or rented out.
At 750 Dorchester Ave. in Dorchester, Dirigo Spice runs its shipping operation out of the building that once housed the archdiocese's central laundry facility overlooking the Southeast Expressway.
In nearby Brookline, the archdiocese has closed two churches, including St. Aidan's, where slain President John F. Kennedy was baptized and served as an altar boy. The church and rectory, valued at $2,880,200, has been targeted by the archdiocese to be rehabbed for condominiums, including nine high-end units mixed with affordable housing.
On West Roxbury Parkway in Brookline, the former Infant Jesus church, which was consolidated with St. Lawrence, sits empty as does its well kept four-bedroom rectory in the upscale neighborhood. The buildings are valued at $1,512,400.
In Weymouth, the former Immaculate Conception School and adjacent convent, valued at $2.2 million, is host to the Weymouth Food Pantry and 12-step meetings just outside the growing Jackson Square.
In Newburyport, developers have been clamoring to buy a former church assessed at $3.34 million.
The buildings are located in a downtown area where the real estate market is "hot as a pistol," said Paul Keenan, a commercial real estate broker in Salisbury.
Keenan, who has developed former churches into housing, said the old buildings can be converted into especially comfortable living space.
"With the help of an architect, you can put some pretty good units there," he said.
In Hingham, HRPT Advisors, a real estate investment group, donated more than 40 acres of developable land in the French Estates to the archdiocese several years ago. The property is in the middle of half-million dollar homes, and one local realtor said the $836,000 assessment is about one-quarter of what the parcel could bring for development.
On Plum Island in Newbury, the archdiocese owns nearly an acre of land assessed by the town at $389,100. Because the property is not being used for a religious purpose, the church paid taxes on it in 2001, according to Town Hall records.
While the majority of properties either lie empty or are rented out, the church has made attempts to sell some of its land.
In Waltham, where the church owns more than $60 million in property citywide, Middlesex County donated 25 acres on Trapelo Road to the archdiocese with the proviso the land not be sold for profit.
But when the county was eliminated after it went bankrupt, church lawyers determined the restriction no longer existed and began negotiating with city officials to sell the property for $2.5 million for a proposed "Emerald Necklace."
"We haven't met since this whole thing (the sex abuse scandal) came down," said Waltham City Councilor Robert S. Kelly. "We have identified that 25 acres and we want it. I'd rather do it from a friendly basis. I'm trying to work with them. Their priorities have obviously changed, ours have not."
And then there are free-standing houses scattered throughout the archdiocese. Many are in cities near parishes that closed long ago.
Others occupy tranquil suburban sites.
In Salisbury, the archdiocese owns a house, formerly known as the "parsonage on the beach," assessed at $414,200. Another home in Hull on Samoset Avenue valued at $229,200, just yards from Nantasket Beach, is being rented out by the church.
The vast majority of property owned by the archdiocese is tax exempt although a few communities do levy property taxes on rent collected by the church from for-profit entities.
The archdiocese also owns extensive old buildings, especially closed schools, that are no longer used for worship or major parochial educational endeavors.
The city of Salem rents a building owned by the archdiocese and valued at $1.98 million. In Belmont, the town rents the former Our Lady of Mercy parish hall, valued at $3.5 million, while in Bridgewater, town officials are negotiating to rent the $1.2 million center at St. Thomas Aquinas while renovations are done on town offices.
The archdiocese has closed the former St. Colman's Elementary School in Brockton and has made the $2.6 million building within walking distance to downtown available for lease.
A private girl's school in Natick educates its students in a rented $2.5 million building while the Benjamin Banneker Charter School in Cambridge holds classes in a portion of $6.7 million complex that housed a now-defunct St. John's elementary school.
In Franklin, the former St. Mary's Elementary School, sitting on 5.29 acres and valued at $1.5 million in the heart of the bustling downtown area, is home to the Benjamin Franklin Charter School. If that were put on the block, it would fetch much more, said one local realtor.
"The assessment is probably on the conservative side," said Andrew Bissanti of Bissanti Realty in Franklin. "It would make a great administrative office-type building. Most of the buildings in this town are full already. There's a demand for more."
Bissanti, who is Catholic, said he has often looked at properties the church owns and been frustrated at the number that sit unused.
"I've often wondered why churches don't tap into that (property)," he said. "There are some very underused properties and they're just going to waste."
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