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Vatican bars Boston archdiocese seizure of parish assets August 11, 2005

In a ruling that presents new complications for a sweeping reconfiguration plan in the Boston archdiocese, the Vatican has ruled that the archdiocese cannot unilaterally claim the assets of parishes that have been closed.

The Vatican decision affects not only the Boston archdiocese-- where it could delay parish closings-- but also other American dioceses that are seeking bankruptcy protection in federal courts. The decision addresses the hotly disputed topic: whether parish assets belong to the diocese, or must be considered separate.

In response to canonical protests filed by parishioners of several closed parishes, the Congregation for the Clergy said that parish assets cannot be seized by the archdiocese, and can be turned over to the archdiocese only with the consent of the pastors and their parish finance councils.

The exact content of the Vatican ruling has not been made public, but officials at the Boston archdiocese acknowledged that the ruling from the Congregation for the Clergy would raise new difficulties for the parish-closing process. However, Archbishop Sean O'Malley told reporters that the reconfiguration of the archdiocese would continue; he said that the Vatican was generally supportive of the process, and required only that the changes be made in accordance with the requirements of canon law.

The Boston archdiocese has been troubled by public protests and lawsuits-- brought in both civil and canonical courts-- by Catholics who objected to the closing of their parishes. The Vatican ruling affects seven such parishes, whose faithful had brought their canonical appeal to the Vatican.

The Congregation for the Clergy ruled that when a geographical parish is merged into another parish, the assets of the suppressed parish become subject to the control of the new parish, rather than the archdiocese. The properties of the old parish which has been closed can be surrendered to the archdiocese only with the consent of the new parish administration, the Vatican said.

The Boston archdiocese has begun talks with the pastors of the parishes affected by the Vatican ruling, hoping to obtain their consent for the handover of assets. At stake are millions of dollars in bank accounts in real-estate holdings, which the Archdiocese of Boston had planned to use to ease a severe financial crisis.

The Vatican's canonical decision has immediate implications for other American dioceses-- such as Portland, Oregon, and Tucson, Arizona-- where Church officials have told bankruptcy courts that they do not control the financial assets of their parishes. That contention has been challenged by plaintiffs in sex-abuse lawsuits, who argue that the diocese or archdiocese is the sole legal owner of parish properties.

Critics of the position adopted by the Archdiocese of Portland had pointed to the apparent contradiction between the claims of that archdiocese, which said that it could not control parish properties, and the plans of the Boston archdiocese to close parishes and take control of their assets.

The legal questions involved in parish ownership are likely to be addressed first by the federal bankruptcy court in Oregon, where the Portland archdiocese had been the first to claim a separation between archdiocesan and parish assets.

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