Who Owns Catholic Church

The Cincinnati Post [Portland OR]
December 7, 2005

The Archdiocese of Portland, the first in the country to file for bankruptcy because of abuse settlements, is at the heart of a debate that could affect future claims by alleged victims of priest sexual abuse.

Attorneys are fighting over who, exactly, owns the churches and the land they're built on.

A hearing was scheduled for todayon whether the individual parishes and Catholic schools own their assets, as the archdiocese argues, or whether those assets belong to the archdiocese itself, as the plaintiffs claim.

Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, said Canon Law - the law of the church - is very clear on the matter.

"Canon 1256 states the right of ownership over goods under the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff belongs to that juridic person which has lawfully acquired them," said Andriacco. "A parish is its own juridic person."

Or to put it more simply, the assets of an individual parish belong to that parish.

Andriacco pointed to examples that illustrate the rule.

"When a parish needs a new building or an addition, the parish raises the money," he said. "It may get help from the diocese in the form of a loan, but they are on their own."

He also cited examples where parishes have closed. In those instances, Andriacco said, the territory and assets of the parish went to the parish that absorbed it.

The Portland case before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris could set a precedent over whether federal law trumps Roman Catholic doctrine when it comes to church property.

Andriacco said that while the Cincinnati Archdiocese adheres to Canon Law, the issue will likely never be raised here because the diocese has not even considered bankruptcy.

"We have assets that far exceed our liabilities," Andriacco said.

If the alleged victims in Portland win their argument, parish property could be made directly available to help pay for any settlements. If they lose, it could force them to go after the individual parishes, delaying and complicating the process while likely increasing the legal costs.

Archbishop John Vlazny decided in July 2004 that bankruptcy was the only way to cover claims by alleged sex abuse victims while making sure that church doors remain open for nearly 400,000 Catholics. He has insisted there was no other way to protect church property.

"It was only when insurance companies failed to provide the financial support owed us and lending institutions would no longer make funds available to us that we had to seek bankruptcy protection," Vlazny said in a column published last month in the archdiocesan newspaper.

But David Slader, who represents several victims, said the archdiocese had access to an investment fund worth more than $40 million that could have been used to settle pending claims.

"If they had done that, there would be no need for filing bankruptcy," Slader said. "And it was unlikely the assets of the parishes and schools would ever have been in jeopardy."

Now, the archdiocese has dug in its heels, Slader said, with Vlazny saying the victims should not be allowed to go after the land and buildings that make up the physical presence of the church.

David Skeel, a bankruptcy law expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said the church has taken inconsistent positions on ownership in the past, with the Archdiocese of Boston acting like a property owner in deciding if to close Catholic schools there.


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