Cleveland Catholic Churches Plan to Appeal Bishop's Order to Close

By Michael F. O'Malley and Robert L. Smith
Plain Dealer
March 21, 2009

Several churches ordered closed by Bishop Richard Lennon of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese are preparing to file appeals, hoping the bishop will change his mind.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Colman, St. Adalbert, St. Peter and St. Emeric, all in Cleveland, believe they have good cases to carry them through the church's legal system known as canon law.

But what are their chances in an institution that bestows immense power and autonomy on its bishops?

Not good, says Michael Dunnigan, a canon lawyer at the St. Joseph Foundation, a parishioners advocacy group in San Antonio, Texas, that offers free legal counsel.

"Unfortunately, it's an uphill battle," he said. "I can't think of an instance in which a bishop changed his mind or was persuaded to change his mind."

Parishes have until Friday to appeal, the diocese said. Lennon has 30 days to respond.

If the bishop does not respond, or if his response affirms the closing, parishes then have 15 days to appeal to the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome.

Chuck Wilson, director of the St. Joseph Foundation, said the Congregation for the Clergy never considers the merits of a case. It only examines whether the bishop followed canon law when he closed the parish.

Parishioners can then appeal to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, which is the church's supreme court. But the tribunal is not likely to reverse a bishop's decision, said Wilson.

"The law grants a lot of discretion to the bishop," he said. "The odds are stacked against the parishioners. The bishop will prevail and I think that's too bad."

Still, parishioners at St. Colman have decided to appeal, and their pastor, the Rev. Bob Begin, is doing his legal homework.

Begin, a lawyer, said his reading of canon law says priests have the responsibility to safeguard their parishes, even from "those of higher authority."

"We have a conscious obligation to continue our ministry," he said. "That's not negotiable."

Parishioners in the archdiocese of Boston -- where Lennon closed churches four years ago when he was there -- have nine appeals pending in Rome.

The appeals have cost parishioners $100,000 so far, said Peter Borre, a Boston Catholic leading the resistance. (Related: Borre's group, Council of Parishes)

"We know the system is rigged," he said in a telephone interview Thursday. "So why are we doing it? Because we're trailblazers. Boston's parishioners, with no illusions, have pushed the appeal process to the highest levels of the Vatican to show Catholics from other dioceses what they can expect."

Like Cleveland, Boston went through the grassroots process of engaging lay people and clergy - grouped in geographical committees called clusters - to make recommendations on closings and mergers to the bishop.

But when the announcements were made in Boston, nine congregations in the archdiocese refused to leave their churches, holding 24-hour protest vigils. Four of the nine have been reopened by the archdiocese. Five are still under occupation.

Lorenzo Grasso, one of the occupiers at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in East Boston, said in a phone interview earlier this month that between 70 and 90 people are holding around-the-clock vigils inside the 104-year-old church. "We have a lot of sympathizers," said Grasso, 56. "We're getting donations from all over the country."

The occupiers pray the rosary three nights a week and say the stations of the cross every Friday in Lent. On Sundays, Grasso, a eucharistic minister, holds a liturgical service and administers communion using hosts that were consecrated by priests from other parishes. "As a faith community, we seem to work better now than when the priest was here," he said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.