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Spotlight Report

Lennon finds a financial squeeze

Unpopular cuts due within weeks

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/30/2003


Bishop Richard G. Lennon (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)
Bishop Richard G. Lennon declared yesterday that the Archdiocese of Boston is in more serious financial trouble than he had thought, and that he expects to be closing schools and making other unpopular cutbacks over the next several weeks.

Lennon, who has been serving as interim administrator of the archdiocese since the Dec. 13 resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, said the church has been hurt by the downturn in the economy as well as the clergy sexual abuse crisis, which hit fund-raising for the church's operating budget particularly hard. He declined to provide specific details, but said he expects to announce tomorrow the closing of at least three Catholic schools and other closings as soon as next month. He said he has already closed one parish, in Salem, and that if he remains on the job for several months he might have to close others.

''We have severe financial problems, and I cannot underestimate those or understate them,'' he said in an interview. ''I have to live with reality.''

Outlining his top priorities after nearly seven weeks as administrator, Lennon said he is determined to settle the legal claims filed by more than 500 people against the archdiocese. In a shift, he said he is prepared to settle with those plaintiffs' attorneys who seem most interested in settling, even though he would prefer a settlement that deals with all pending claims.

Lennon also said a church review board has been unable to substantiate abuse allegations against two priests that were brought last year, and that he expects to restore those priests to their jobs unless the complainants succeed in challenging the review board decisions. Lennon said a third case has proved difficult to judge, and that he has decided to ask the Vatican to rule. He declined to name any of the priests involved.

Lennon said he has no idea how long he will be in his current job, which will last until Pope John Paul II names a new archbishop of Boston. But he made it clear that he will judge his success or failure based on his ability to negotiate a settlement of cases.

''Certainly, if I can be instrumental in helping arrange for a settlement for the victims of clergy sexual abuse, that has to be one of my largest priorities,'' he said. ''Without it, not only are the victims not being helped and assisted, but the church isn't able to go forward, either, as well as it should.''

The administrator said he is regularly talking with church lawyers, most recently on Monday night, to impress upon them his desire to seek a settlement.

Lennon said he wants a ''comprehensive settlement'' with all victims, but made it clear he is prepared to consider a partial settlement with those victims whose lawyers are ready to talk. ''That's really not what I would like, but we may have to,'' he said. He appeared to be acknowledging a significant hurdle in the path of a ''global'' settlement - Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer handling about one-fifth of the pending claims, has thus far declined to agree to a moratorium on litigation activity while two mediators attempt to broker an agreement.

''We definitely want to settle all these cases, and we're convinced that the only way to do that is altogether, so that all the victims will be treated fairly, that they'll be treated equitably,'' Lennon said. ''Unless it's done in that type of a situation, there's a real good chance that some people will not receive a real and just settlement and that would be terrible for the church to be involved in,'' he said.

An attorney representing many victims of sexual abuse by clergy, Roderick MacLeish Jr., said he believes most of the lawyers representing victims are prepared to settle the cases. He said the archdiocesan lawyers appear to have largely given up on the idea of a global settlement.

''There's a time for peace and a time for war, and I don't know if this is the time for peace, but it is time to give peace a chance,'' MacLeish said. ''We're going to give settlement a try. We are getting good signs from the archdiocese - it's still early, and we're still upset about some things, but we hope we can create a process that's fair for all victims.''

Lennon repeatedly emphasized the dire financial straits of the archdiocese. Asked to describe differences between himself and Law, the only response he offered was his emphasis on the church's finances.

''We need to make some very tough decisions, some very difficult decisions at this time,'' he said. ''To rely on the future, that things might or might not get better financially - hopefully they do, but at the moment we need to make some tough decisions.''

He said it remains possible that the archdiocese will file for bankruptcy, but that he has not decided whether to pursue that option. He also said he hopes to raise at least $10 million by selling underused church buildings.

The church's financial woes are attributable both to the depressed economy and to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, which hurt contributions to the Cardinal's Appeal last year. Lennon declined to provide any specific numbers, but the archdiocese has previously said that it had raised only about $8 million toward last year's appeal, which was supposed to raise $17 million for the church's operating budget.

''The serious financial situation that we're in as an archdiocese ... predates this crisis, and was brought to everyone's attention in May of 2001, but has just gotten worse,'' Lennon said. ''It really does need to be addressed in a forthright way, and a rather focused way, because right now we're unable to do the things that we really need to do.''

Lennon said school closings ''are not decisions that I relish or am happy about,'' but that the church's financial situation demands it.

He said he recently completed the ''suppression'' - the church term for closure - of a parish in Salem, Saint Mary's, that had been selected for closing by Law, and that ''if I'm here for a number of months, I could easily foresee'' closing other churches.

Lennon defended the church's decision to take two aggressive legal steps, deposing the therapists of alleged victims and asserting protection from certain legal claims under the Constitution's First Amendment.

He said the church would stop deposing therapists if victims' attorneys would agree to a moratorium on litigation activity to pursue a mediated settlement, and he said the First Amendment filing was necessary to satisfy the demand by the church's insurance providers that the church mount an aggressive legal defense before claims are paid.

A leader of the Boston Priests Forum said he was delighted that the bishop is endeavoring to resolve the cases of two dozen priests who were removed from their jobs last year because they were accused of abusing minors. Lennon said resolving those cases - by permanently removing abusive priests and by reinstating those who the church believes are not guilty - is another priority for him.

''These priests and their parishioners have been hanging out there for a long time,'' said the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon. ''You cannot imagine how difficult it is for a priest who is convinced he has been falsely accused to have his reputation so publicly damaged and not to have that resolved.''

Bullock said he is not surprised by Lennon's grim financial assessment.

''That's to be expected - the Cardinal's Appeal is a fraction of what it should have been, the capital campaign is surely limping, and income is down,'' he said. ''It's a disaster because those ministries that serve the direct needs of people are most in jeopardy.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/30/2003.
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