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Spotlight Report

O'Malley said to eye closing of parishes

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/22/2003

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has summoned the priests of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to a meeting Dec. 6 at which he is widely expected to outline the need for closing parishes in Eastern Massachusetts.

O'Malley's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said the archbishop has not decided whether to close parishes, how many parishes might be closed, or even what exactly he plans to discuss on Dec. 6. But church officials have said for months that O'Malley will ultimately have to close numerous parishes because many are too small to survive and are housed in old buildings that are too decrepit to repair.

"The archbishop has called priests together to look at where we are as an archdiocese and where we're going as an archdiocese," Coyne said. "There's been speculation about parish closings and about the need to allocate resources, and certainly those things will be discussed. But there have been no decisions made by anyone as to particular parish closings or numbers of parishes or what we're doing."

O'Malley's predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, closed nearly 50 parishes through the late 1990s, but he had told church leaders that he thought the era of church closings had ended. But then the combination of a recession and the clergy sexual abuse crisis devastated the archdiocese's finances, leaving the church less able to subsidize parishes.

Church attendance and fund-raising have stabilized in recent months, after declining during the heat of the crisis, but church officials say it is not enough to mitigate the economic and demographic trends that necessitate church closings. The declining number of priests is also making it difficult to staff the archdiocese's 360 parishes.

Many of the closings are expected to take place in Boston, Brockton, Lowell, and inner-ring suburbs, where there are more churches than needed to support the number of Catholics who now live there or who still attend church. The archdiocese will also have to consider closing some of the few remaining national parishes. Those are parishes formed to serve immigrant groups in their native languages, but which are increasingly unused as the children of immigrants assimilate into the broader church.

Priests are abuzz about the possibility of parish closings.

"The letter that invited us to go to a meeting did not specify the reasons, but everybody is speculating that it has to do with the reconfiguration of parishes," said the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, president of the Boston Priests' Forum and pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Sharon. "It has to happen, because there are so many areas of the diocese in which there are small parishes finding it hard to function. The demographic changes have been so pronounced that there has to be a realignment of the parish territories."

Parish closings would almost certainly not be announced before Christmas, and church officials have not even announced the process they will use to decide what parishes to close. But some pastors have been told to postpone major financial decisions to allow maximum flexibility for the archdiocese.

Closing parishes would pose a major test to the considerable goodwill that has attended O'Malley's first months in office. Parish closings are always unpopular, as people mourn the loss of churches where they were baptized or married, even if many no longer worship in those buildings.

"It's just very difficult for parishioners, especially older parishioners who have been in churches for a long time," Bullock said. "Churches mean a lot to people. These are places where their great spiritual journeys took place."

WBZ-TV reported last night that O'Malley would announce a list of parishes to be closed, but Coyne said that was not true.

"The report is inaccurate," Coyne said. "No list exists, no announcement of particular parish closings will be made at this meeting, nor was such an announcement ever planned."

The archdiocese is finalizing its plans for coming up with the $85 million it has pledged to settle litigation brought by nearly 500 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse. But O'Malley has repeatedly said that no parish money or assets will be used to pay for the settlement. Church officials say that parish closings would have been necessary even if the clergy sexual abuse crisis had not happened, because of changes in demographics and church attendance patterns. Other older Northeast dioceses are facing similar problems. Most prominently, the Archdiocese of New York has begun a reorganization that is expected to result in numerous parish closings.

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


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