Who Owns the Parish?
The outcomes of bankruptcy proceedings in three U.S. dioceses
(Tucson, Portland, and Spokane) could have reverberations all over
the U.S. In Boston, parishioners in 10 parishes are holding 24
hour vigils rather than accede to diocesan orders to close down.
One parish, St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, has begun legal
proceedings in order to stay open. The issues are far from clear.
The Boston Archdiocese says in civil law, it holds (and therefore
controls) parish assets in a trusteeship.
Canonically, according to preeminent canon lawyer
Fr. James Coriden, the assets
belong to the “juridic entity” that collected them, in this case
the parish. However, if the parish is “suppressed” by the appropriate
canonical authority, it no longer exists, cannot ownanything, and the assets
go to the diocese. If it merges with another parish, the assets theoretically
go to the new entity. The Boston Archdiocese recently
recently announced the closing some 83parishes because of the priest shortage and to assuage the ocean of red ink flowing
from the sex abuse scandal. Since early 2002, Archdiocesan annual income declined
by 50%. It has an unfunded pension liability of $80 million, an annual deficit
of $10 million and owes $35 million borrowed three years ago to cover operating
On the other coast, the Portland Archdiocese is
arguing in bankruptcy court that parish assets should not be included in
its net worth. On July 6, the Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy
protection as a way of dealing
with lawsuits by over 60 plaintiffs seeking over $300 million dollars in damages
for clergy sex abuse. Similar filings were made by Tucson on September 20 and
Spokane on December 6. Portland judge Elizabeth Perris will not rule on the
extent of Archdiocesan assets until early in 2005. Currently,
the Archdiocese says its
assets are worth 20 million. If the parishes are included, Archdiocesan total
net worth could increase to $500 million.