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Pitfalls to avoid in canonical appeals

By Peter Borre

Council of Parishes

1.  "Ten days to appeal": Yes, but...these ten days run from when you are "notified" and NOT from the planned date of closing.  Moreover, this does not have to mean that you have received a written Notice of Intent to Suppress; it can be as tenuous as a video-conference to the entire diocese (Camden), with no opportunity for comment or Questions.  (btw...the ten days are calendar days, not working days).

2.  "Bishop never got your appeal": A sleazy trick, frequently played.  You must send your document by registered mail, signed receipt and so forth, with multiple copies to at least two other diocesan officials (vicar and chancellor); and a respectful cc: to the papal nuncio in Washington DC who seems to be above these underhanded maneuvers.  Frequently, the nuncio will acknowledge your appeal before your own bishop gets around to it.

3.  "Magic words in the appeal": Besides carrying on (much too lengthily, at times) about how beautiful your parish is, and what rotten games have been played (all of which is true), you MUST be specific in what you are asking of the bishop: 
To have the decree suspended, and to have it eventually revoked or amended for the purpose of maintaining your faith community AS A PARISH.

4.  "What next?": Many parishioners figure that after they have sent off their recourse letter to the diocese, the next step is for the bishop to take.  NOT TRUE.

Under canon 1735, if the bishop has not responded to the recourse after 30 days following receipt of it, you have ONLY ten days following the 30 days that have tolled to take your next step by filing an appeal to the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy.  If you do not act within this ten-day window, any eventual appeal to the congregation is untimely and invalid.

The bishop's trick is to simply not respond for at least 40-50 days, thus invalidating an appeal over his head made by parishioners who waited in good faith for the bishop's answer.

5.  Parishioner games: In more than one instance I know of, a parishioner has taken it upon himself or herself to send the recourse as a solo effort.  Unless this person is endowed with supernatural knowledge of canon law (and I am NOT, in spite of having spent eight years in Rome), this person will probably make some major procedural or substantive blunders, and put the whole appeal at risk. 

Power games among parishioners play right into the hands of the hierarchy.

6. Other Pitfalls: After your initial appeal to the diocesan bishop, you have the right to challenge him by filing an appeal ("recourse") to the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy ("CpC," Congregatio pro Clericis), but there are some hurdles, i.e. tricks which bishops play:

  • In the event that your diocesan bishop turns down your initial appeal, you have a maximum of ten days from the time you receive such notice to file with the CpC.
  • However, if your bishop does not respond to you within 30 days of your appeal to him, you then have only TEN days (after the 30 have tolled) to file your appeal to the CpC in Rome.   Many unwary parishioners think that they cannot appeal to Rome until they have heard from their bishop one way or the other; not so.
  • The long and the short of it is that you are probably coming to the 30-day mark from when you filed your initial appeal to your bishop.
  • If you have not heard back, it is time for you to take the next step and file with the CpC if this is your intent.  If you let the clock run for ten days beyond the 30-day limit, you forego your right to a CpC appeal.  If this seems confusing, you are precisely right.  It is a procedure intended to derail appeals.
  • Another trick:  if you try to send your CpC appeal by courier service (FedEx, DHL, and such), the CpC will NOT accept it.
  • Unless you wish to hand-carry your CpC appeal to Rome, the safest way is to send it to the papal nuncio in Washington DC, requesting (respectfully) that he forward the appeal to Rome via the diplomatic pouch

Please feel free to circulate this to other interested parishioner groups.

Peter Borre
Co-chair Council of Parishes Boston