Parish Finance Bill Sparks Legal Questions As Catholic League Calls for Lawmakers' Ouster

By Keith M. Phaneuf
Journal Inquirer
March 10, 2009

HARTFORD — A measure to strip the Roman Catholic hierarchy of parish control continues to spark both legal questions and controversy at the state Capitol.

Is the measure breaking new legal ground and even heading toward a constitutional roadblock, or is it simply continuing a process begun in legislation more than five decades ago?

Would the bill dramatically reorganize how parish finances are handled, or does it simply provide greater protection against corruption similar to embezzlement cases at parishes in Darien and Greenwich?

And did Connecticut carve out special rules for Catholic and Protestant communities in 1955, or was that law enacted simply to afford parish volunteers basic legal protection against lawsuits aimed at churches and other larger religious organizations?

While the answers were mixed Monday at the Capitol, the controversy was clear.

As thousands of e-mails poured into the Judiciary Committee, the Catholic League, a Roman Catholic advocacy group, called for Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, and Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, to be kicked out of the General Assembly. The league argued the two co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee are "ethically unfit" to continue as lawmakers.

Catholics across the state learned about the bill during Mass on Sunday when priests read statements from the state's bishops.

Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell, Norwich Bishop Michael R. Cote, and Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori said the proposal "directly attacks the Roman Catholic Church and our faith" and urged parishioners to attend a public hearing Wednesday at the Legislative Office Building.

The proposal would change the governing structure of parishes to include seven to 13 lay members, giving them the power to control parish finances. The archbishop or bishop of the diocese, as well as the parish pastor, would serve as an ex-officio member but couldn't vote on issues.

McDonald and Lawlor said the legislation originated not with themselves, but with a group of parishioners upset about recent cases of priests embezzling sums from parishes in Darien and Greenwich.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said the measure approved 54 years ago "simply was designed to protect parishioners from being sued" if they volunteer their time to work on parish finance oversight panels. The statute didn't really impose any new standards on churches, but codified the systems already in place, he argued.

The Senate Republican Caucus, which controls 12 out of 36 seats in the chamber, unanimously denounced the bill Monday, according to McKinney, who predicted that if enacted, it would be struck down in court as a violation of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

A freshman Republican state senator, Michael McLachlan of Danbury, contended on his blog that the legislation is "a thinly veiled attack" on the church for opposing same-sex marriage — which both Lawlor and McDonald support.

The committee co-chairmen issued their own joint statement.

"A lot of misinformation has been spread about this proposal, and we ourselves are still learning exactly what its impact would be," Lawlor and McDonald wrote. "We are keeping an open mind to what these parishioners have to say about their church, and we respectfully ask that others give the courtesy of listening to their proposed changes."

Lawlor also noted that the 1955 statute is confusing in itself, as it establishes different governing parameters for Catholic parishes versus various Protestant denominations.

Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, said he doesn't believe the legislation is an attack on the faith. Rather, he described it as an attempt by everyday Catholics to bring "health and sanity" to the church's financial affairs.


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