Statement of Concern:
by the Coalition of Parishes
In advance of the U.S. visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict, parishioners from some of the major Catholic dioceses have assembled in New York City to draw attention to the actions of American bishops which put at risk the future of our faith,
The systematic destruction of vibrant, viable parishes which constitute the spiritual and material infrastructure of the Catholic Church.
Parishioners from dioceses in Boston, Buffalo, Camden, New Orleans, New York and Toledo are represented here, for the purpose of announcing the formation of the Coalition of Parishes, constituted as:
A voluntary association of Catholic parishioners across America who are determined to safeguard their faith communities against the abuses of diocesan bishops.
There is a profound lesson, painfully learned over the past six years from the clerical sex abuse scandal which erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2002:
Collectively, the Catholic hierarchy in America cannot be trusted to do the right things until the cleansing glare of disclosure hits the dioceses.
We are now well into Part II of the saga of abusive bishops: if Part I was the sex abuse scandal, Part II is the abuse of parishioners through the destruction of their vibrant parishes.
The pace of parish closings across America has accelerated since the Archdiocese of Boston led the way in late 2003, in the immediate aftermath of its sex abuse scandal. In December of that year, almost simultaneously with a $85 million sex abuse settlement for more than 500 alleged victims, the Archbishop of Boston announced his policy of “reconfiguration,” which five months later led to his plan to close 83 parishes, 23% of Boston’s total.
Beyond Boston, over the past four years parish closing programs have been announced or implemented for more than 800 parishes, in at least 40 dioceses located in 14 states:
Today, this wave of parish closings has spread from Boston throughout New England to western Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire; to New York City and upstate; to New Jersey and westward to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan; and elsewhere to California, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas.
Several reasons are usually given by the bishops to rationalize parish closing programs, as discussed below, but typically the given reasons do not acknowledge the proverbial Elephant in the Room – the financial pressures on dioceses arising from settlements of sex abuse claims.
It is only in a much more legalistic setting that bishops have been compelled to make the connection between sex abuse settlements and diocesan parishes, in the six instances, over recent years, where bishops have filed for bankruptcy protection in federal courts; this sorry list consists, chronologically, of the following dioceses:
Portland, OR; Tucson, AZ; Spokane, WA; Davenport, IA; San Diego, CA; and Anchorage, AZ.
In these court proceedings, the bishops have stated that they are trustees of the parishes, that they do not “own” the parishes in their dioceses but only hold bare legal title as a convenience, and that they cannot put the parishes into a bankruptcy settlement pool to liquidate claims against the dioceses. The Bishop of Spokane has been very explicit on this point, in a sworn affidavit delivered under the penalties of perjury.
But of course, diocesan bishops beyond the jurisdiction of the federal bankruptcy laws assert that they are the sole owners of “their” parishes, and can dispose of these properties as they please. On the street, this is known as trying to have it both ways.
The truth of the matter is that the financial consequence of decades of abuse and cover-ups by bishops is coming home to roost throughout Catholic America. And the bishops’ response to this debacle is to sacrifice the parish infrastructure in dozens of dioceses.
The time has long past for “pray and obey” Catholics to acquiesce silently in a continuation of abuse by the clerical hierarchy.
It is beyond debate that American bishops must face the moral, legal and financial responsibility for their massive failure to prevent clerical sex abuse; and the efforts by the bishops to date are insufficient. It is beyond comprehension that Boston’s former archbishop, Bernard Law, is beyond reach in Rome, enjoying the prestige and emoluments of serving as “archpriest” of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, assisted by a monsignor who remains on the payroll of the Archdiocese of Boston.
On the occasion of the Pope’s imminent visit, it is to be hoped that His Holiness will take public notice of the stain on the Catholic hierarchy, with more clarity and specificity than has been shown thus far.
It is also beyond debate that the Catholic hierarchy must not try to fix one form of abuse - the sexual abuse of the young, by perpetrating another form of abuse upon parishioners through the destruction of thousands of American parishes.
Ominously, however, from the experience of the past four years this seems to be the default option for bishops.
To date well over two billion dollars have been paid by Catholic dioceses in settlement of sex abuse claims; and many other claims remain unresolved. Beyond this, there are hundreds of millions more that have been paid out by dioceses, involving hush payments prior to the eruption of the scandal in 2002, attorneys fees, medical costs, and “rehabilitation” for accused clerics. As insurance payments and liquid assets have been depleted by the dioceses, the funding for these huge sums is being raised from the sale of diocesan properties, mostly parishes:
This is what the Coalition of Parishes intends to fight, within the mainstream of Catholic dogma and teaching.
It is the Vatican itself that has put on the record the tight causal link between sex abuse and parish closings. This has become strikingly clear in the course of numerous canon appeals filed by Boston parishioners, where the canonical advocate for the Archdiocese of Boston has stated in sworn court briefs involving nine parishioner appeals (as translated from the original Latin):
“…maximum discretion was given to His Excellency the Archbishop of Boston, so that he might save the entire archdiocese from monetary ruin, provoked not only, but also by the ‘sexual abuse crisis’ [sic, in the briefs]. It is in this context that all actions of this process of reconfiguration and ‘closing of parishes’ are to be understood…”
Over the past four years, the process of parish destruction has spread to at least 40 dioceses, particularly in “legacy” Catholic America, comprising roughly the East coast down to the mid-Atlantic, west across Pennsylvania to Ohio and Michigan, and south to Kentucky. These were the areas of concentration of 19th and early 20th century Catholic European immigrants.
And the tempo of parish closings is increasing:
Within the last ten days, the Diocese of Camden and the Archdiocese of New Orleans have rolled out their parish closing plans, literally days before the Pope’s scheduled arrival.
Either this is a PR blunder of some magnitude, stepping on the Pope’s message, or perhaps with characteristic Roman subtlety the Vatican is orchestrating a message of financial distress among American dioceses, to pre-empt future financial claims.
Whatever the explanation may be, as the parish closing process intensifies, it is fair to wonder how far it will go. Authoritative estimates from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate indicate that from a current level of 19,000 parishes, eventually as many as 7,000 American parishes could be shut down by the diocesan bishops. This would amount to a 37% downsizing in the U.S., a country which today is second, after Brazil, in the ranking of the most numerous Catholic populations world-wide.
A downsizing of one-third or more would constitute a pervasive failure on the part of the American bishops:
Their failure to evangelize among the faithful, at a time of robust growth in the U.S. among other religious denominations;
Their failure to uphold the dignity of the priestly calling, as seminaries empty out; and
Their failure to safeguard the material patrimony of the Church, as billions of dollars have been (justly and appropriately) paid out for the decades of clerical sex abuse; today, the finances of many dioceses are in disarray.
The bishops usually give a standard litany of reasons for parish closings:
Changing demographics, shortage of priests, and insolvent parishes.
But these do not stand up under close scrutiny.
This is short-hand for Catholics getting old and dying. But this is not the operative reason; in truth, the changing demographics are driven by the fact that more than 20 million Catholics have been driven away from the faith in which they were raised, due to the failure of the American bishops to inspire them:
A recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life puts this in perspective:
Nationally, the report found that “one in ten American adults” are lapsed Catholics;
By this measure, these 23 million lapsed Catholics constitute the second largest religious denomination in America today.
“Shortage of Priests”
There is indeed a shortage of diocesan priests, the home-grown males who have usually marched through the local Catholic school system into the priesthood via the diocesan seminary; but today, many of these seminaries are emptying out:
In the Archdiocese of New York, not a single man is scheduled to enter St. Joseph’s Seminary this fall; “the first year program – known as Theology I – may be empty for the first time in 108 years.” [as reported last month in The Journal News.]
However, there are “supplies” of additional clergy, fully Catholic and qualified, from the dozens of religious orders active in the dioceses; and from thriving priest-exporting countries such as Poland, India, the Philippines, as well as from the Vietnamese Catholic diaspora.
Interestingly, there is an emerging model of clerical/lay parish administration rising from the ashes of reconfiguration in Boston:
A closed parish, occupied for the past three years by its parishioners, and run by the vigil group, is supplied with a retired priest from the archdiocese who celebrates Sunday Mass; the entire financial and managerial burden upon the archdiocese of this closed parish amounts to three hours per week of clergy time, to serve hundreds of Catholics.
Superficially, this rationale might have some appeal, in cases where some parishes have dilapidated physical plant, unpaid bills and dwindling congregations. However, four years of experience in Boston show that the “insolvent parish” rationale is widely used by the bishops as a pretext for another purpose:
To appropriate for the diocese the cash and property of thriving parishes.
In the Archdiocese of Boston, over half of the 83 parishes set for closing in 2004 met every test of viability and vibrancy, sacramental and financial. And many of the parishes on this hit list turned out to be among the wealthiest in the archdiocese.
This is the stark truth of parish closings in Boston, and this is the driving force for many parish closings across the U.S.
It is also part of the Boston experience that many ethnic and inner city parishes have been closed or listed for closing. In contemporary America there are thousands of urban Catholic parishes which are platforms to reach millions of recent immigrants, mostly from Catholic countries and in need of spiritual and material assistance much as the grandparents of legacy Catholics were served by their parishes in the 19th and the early 20th century.
The 19,000 parishes serving the spiritual needs of some 67 million Catholics are not the bishops’ personal ATMs. These faith communities are recognized as distinct legal entities under the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law, and they deserve something more than the downsizing techniques appropriate for overextended fast food chains, particularly when the real reason for the downsizing is the moral and legal failure of “management” – the bishops.
For aggrieved parishioners, there are not many effective ways to challenge unjust bishops, since Catholicism is a hierarchical religion where absolute spiritual and temporal authority is vested in the Pontiff and delegated to these bishops. However, driven by necessity over the past four years of reconfiguration turmoil, Boston’s parishioners have adopted a variety of resistance techniques:
Vigils, i.e. peaceful, non-violent 24/7 sit-ins in closed churches; at peak, nine such vigils were operating; four closed churches were eventually reopened, but five churches remain closed and in vigil today, having completed more than three years of vigil and going strong;
Civil lawsuits, with parishioners challenging in state courts the diocesan bishop in his acknowledged role as a “trustee,” by arguing that bishops as trustees may not appropriate the assets of beneficiaries (in this case, the parishioners);
Canon appeals, where over the past three years, at least nine Boston parishioner groups have worked their way to the Vatican’s highest tribunal for these matters, the Apostolic Signatura, challenging the closing of their parishes.
These are some of the techniques which the Coalition of Parishes will share with parishioners across Catholic America, as the spirit of resistance spreads nation-wide. Parishioners from the six dioceses represented here today are the nucleus of this effort.
The actions of the American bishops threaten to break the centuries-old bond between Catholics and their parishes, and are a direct contradiction of a recent statement by the Vatican’s Papal Nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Pietro Sambi. When asked about the Catholic church in the United States, he stated, as one of “three strong principles,”
“…a clear sense of belonging. I would express it in this way: you need a community, and the community needs you. Whoever walks alone sooner or later will be lost in the desert.”
From Boston’s extensive experience with reconfiguration, we have learned that one-third of parishioners from closed parishes simply drop out, truly “lost in the desert.”
There is a bit of scripture which applies to the shepherds of many American dioceses from The Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 34:
Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!…
You have fed off their milk, and slaughtered the fatlings…
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost…
You lorded it over them harshly and brutally
So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd…