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  Use of Funds Irks Former Parishioners
Toledo Diocese Fights Lawsuit by Spending Group's Donations

By David Yonke
Toledo Blade
November 18, 2007

http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071118/NEWS10/711180339/-1/NEWS

KANSAS, Ohio - Members and supporters of the former St. James Parish, a rural church closed by Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair in July, 2005, have pitched in more than $60,000 to sue the Toledo Catholic Diocese, claiming their old church and property belong to the ex-members and not the bishop.

But the former parishioners were outraged to discover recently that money they donated to their parish while it was open is now being used by the diocese to pay attorneys who are fighting them in court.

Members of the former St. James Parish, from left, Ed Row, Ginny Hull, Sarah Kleinfelter, Helen Durst, Margie Steinmetz, and Sue Schwab, have learned the Toledo Catholic Diocese is using funds from their closed parish account to fight the same lawsuit parish members filed against the diocese.
Photo by Jeremy Wadsworth

Documents obtained by the plaintiffs and The Blade show that the Diocese of Toledo has transferred at least $44,990 from St. James' account to the Toledo law firm of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick to pay legal fees involving St. James' lawsuit in Seneca County Common Pleas Court.

"It doesn't seem right," said Ginny Hull, a plaintiff along with her husband, James. "The diocese never put a cent in. The people bought the property. They bought the property before the Toledo diocese was even formed."

Ms. Hull said St. James was founded before the Toledo diocese existed, and that the land and building were paid for by parishioners.

Church records show St. James Parish was founded in 1889 and the Toledo diocese was created 21 years later, in 1910.

"We would like the building back. And the money back. Because we believe it belongs to us, not to them," Ms. Hull said.

Steve Johnson, another former parishioner, said he was "disgusted, but definitely not surprised" to learn that the diocese was using St. James' own money against them.

"This type of behavior is consistent with what we have come to expect from the diocese in handling parishes and their assets," he said.

St. James Parish in Kansas, Ohio, was closed by Bishop Leonard Blair in July, 2005.
Photo by Jeremy Wadsworth

Sally Oberski, director of communications for the Toledo diocese, said the issues involved are "much more complex than they appear on the surface," but that "in light of the pending litigation it would be inappropriate to comment about the meaning of documents exchanged as part of the discovery process - especially internal administrative bookkeeping materials - or arguments asserted by the plaintiffs."

Mr. Johnson said the diocese has not abided by a statement it issued June, 27, 2006, saying that the $77,957.60 it transferred from St. James' account would "be held until a decision is made between the diocese and former members of the parish as to the disposition of the funds."

He and Ms. Hull said no ex-parishioners have been consulted about the closed parish's account.

"No discussion or agreements have taken place to our knowledge," Mr. Johnson said. "Even if there were some discussions that I'm not aware of, the thought that St. James would agree that using those funds to pay a legal firm representing the opposition is ludicrous."

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The records also show that the diocese has paid $3,290 to Richard C. Peiffer for lawn care out of the parish's account, the balance of which was down to $13,804.29 at the end of September. Ms. Hull said her husband used to mow St. James' grass for free until the parish was shuttered.

About 100 people have contributed so far to the ex-parishioners' legal costs to hire the Columbus firm of Bricker & Eckler to represent them against the diocese, Ms. Hull said.

She and Mr. Johnson said St. James' ex-members are committed to taking their case as far as necessary, even though they lack the financial resources of a large diocese.

Members of St. James and Holy Rosary Parish in East Toledo both tried to save their parishes first through the Catholic Church's legal system, filing appeals with Rome that sought to have Bishop Blair's decisions overturned. The Vatican upheld the bishop's actions in November, 2005.

Holy Rosary appealed to the Apostolic Signatura, the Roman Catholic Church's highest-ranking court, but St. James' ex-members chose not to do so, in part out of principle but also because of the costs involved.

St. James had about 200 active members when Bishop Blair closed it nearly 2 1/2 years ago, part of a large restructuring of parish boundaries throughout the 19-county diocese.

Members of the church began an around-the-clock prayer vigil, hoping the bishop would change his mind, inside the building on May 1, 2005. That vigil ended abruptly on March 6, 2006, when the diocese sent a worker to Kansas to padlock the building.

A core group of St. James' ex-parishioners has continued to meet every Sunday morning for a prayer in a nearby United Methodist Church. The ex-parishioners also have continued a 19-year tradition of performing an original Easter drama, His Last Days, at churches throughout northwest Ohio during the Lenten season.

Ms. Hull and Mr. Johnson said they hope St. James' lawsuit will make the Toledo diocese think twice about closing small parishes. "We think that if we can prove that the people own the property, it will put a stop to the diocese closing more parishes," Ms. Hull said. "With the amount of money we've spent, we almost could have bought a church. But it wouldn't accomplish anything because they would keep closing parishes.

"What they need to realize is it's not about the building. It's about the community," Ms. Hull said.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.comor 419-724-6154.

 
 

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