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By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jan 04, 2006

An informative posting by Ed Peters concerning the Portland parish property ruling:

Federal bankruptcy judge Elizabeth Perris has ruled that parish property within the Archdiocese of Portland OR is subject to seizure if needed to satisfy the liability obligations (chiefly, ones arising from clergy sexual misconduct cases) of the archdiocese. Judge Perris thus joins Judge Patricia Williams (hearing similar cases in Spokane WA) in holding, among other things, and for the time being at least, that bankruptcy law takes precedence over canon law and consequently trumps the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. How so?

Under civil law, parish properties across the United States are registered in at least four very different ways (corporation sole, religious corporation, various trust models, and fee simple). But to complicate unavoidably an already complex situation, under canon law all parishes are "juridic persons" (1983 CIC 515). Thus, regardless of civil registration forms, Catholic parishes canonically own the assets assigned to or acquired by themselves (1983 CIC 1256). Pastors, who administer parish assets (1983 CIC 532, 1279), and bishops, who exercise vigilance over property belonging to juridic persons in their territory (1983 CIC 392, 1276), are sworn (1983 CIC 833) to act in accord with canon law in the performance of their duties lest, among other things, their actions be null and they themselves be derelict performance of their duties (cit. omm.). The stage is now set for a classic "free-exercise" conflict. It arises thus:

Canon law reasonably requires that "alienations" (selling or other transfers of property) meet a variety of requirements for validity (see generally all of Book V of the 1983 Code). Among those numerous requirements is the need for authorization from Rome for alienations over $3,000,000 (1983 CIC 1292), a figure all sides agree will easily be surpassed in these cases. But what if Rome, for all sorts of objectively defensible reasons, says No? At that point, Catholic administrators will either defy their religious responsibilities and sell-off assets for whatever they might fetch, or they will refuse to cooperate with the liquidations whereupon, presumably, federal bankruptcy courts will order the seizure of parish property, and thus align the U. S. government with a long line of powerful states that have confiscated Church property over the centuries. Both scenarios gravely threaten the free exercise guarantees of the Constitution.

But let's prescind from law for a moment, and look at this matter common-sensically: exactly how is it just to make individual parishes pay for diocesan (read: episcopal) negligence? Consider: parishes have no say in who will be their pastor (1983 CIC 523), parishioners in many of these cases were themselves the direct victims of priest predators, and now parishes are being told they might have to pay -- and pay dearly -- for the gross offenses of men over whom they had no control. Does that sound fair?

Let there be no mistake: a way should be found, and I think will be found, to compensate justly the victims of clergy sex abuse. The way will doubtless be painful. Nevertheless, justice cannot be satisfied by shuttering parish churches and schools or by disbanding community service organizations, and it cannot be served by letting stand lower court rulings that could provoke a major Church-State show-down with serious international repercussions.

According to my calculations, the pious fourth graders of greater Portland, by their door-to-door exertions, will need to sell 26.3 billion Almond Joy candy bars to satisfy archdiocesan creditors and preserve parishes and schools intact. What's important, of course, is that the injury Dr. Peters calls episcopal negligence should be expiated by vicarious accountability. Can I put you down for a 24-pack?

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