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Vatican high court dismisses appeals

Parishioners sought church reopenings

By Lisa Wangsness and Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / May 18, 2010

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The Vatican’s highest court has rejected appeals from local Catholics seeking to reopen 10 closed parishes, including three where protesters have been keeping a round-the-clock vigil for years, according to a group representing parishioners at many of the closed churches.

A Rome-based canon lawyer for the Council of Parishes was notified of the rulings yesterday by the Vatican’s tribunal, called the Apostolic Signatura, according to a spokesman for the council. The Signatura renders its decisions in Latin and sends them by mail to the parties involved; the Archdiocese of Boston said it had not received the rulings yesterday.

Parishioners opposed to the closings reacted angrily to the news, even though many said they were not surprised. “American Catholics will not let up in their efforts to bring the American bishops to account and to compel bishops to stop using parishes as ATMs to pay the piper for clergy sex abuse,’’ the council said in a statement.

The Archdiocese of Boston said it would withhold comment until it received the official decision from Rome. But the church insisted that no money from the sale of shuttered parishes had been used to settle lawsuits with victims of clergy abuse.

“The archdiocese continues to seek a prayerful resolution to all of the vigils,’’ the archdiocese said in a statement.

The 10 Boston-area churches where parishioners challenged their closings are among 70 nationwide that are appealing to the Vatican, trying to reverse a series of closings prompted by declining worship attendance, financial crises, and demographic shifts affecting some Catholic dioceses. The number of parishes in the archdiocese has dropped to 291, from 357, since 2004 as a result of closings and mergers.

The parishioners who have been fighting some of the Boston closings yesterday vowed to keep doing so. Some have filed challenges in state courts; some pledged to file a challenge in federal court. Peter Borre, the chairman of the Council of Parishes, hopped on a plane to Rome, looking for new ways to proceed.

In Framingham, Kenneth “Grumpy’’ Knapp, 58, and Josephine Patruno, 92, who have been members of St. Jeremiah parish since it opened in 1958, said they had no intention of abandoning the vigil they and their fellow parishioners have kept up for five years. “We’re not leaving, period,’’ said Patruno.

And at St. James the Great in Wellesley, where parishioners have kept vigil since the parish was closed on Halloween 2004, vigil organizer Suzanne Hurley said she hoped the stand-off would eventually end with a settlement between the archdiocese and parishioners.

“The faith lives in us,’’ she said. “The archdiocese didn’t give me my faith, and they cannot take it away. They are here to serve and lead us, and they have not done that.’’

At St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Scituate, where vigil-keepers occupy the church around the clock, spokesman Jon Rogers said members would also initiate a new round of canon law appeals in an effort to stop the archdiocese from relegating the church to profane, or nonreligious, use.

“We’re working on it now,’’ Rogers said.

St. Frances parishioners want to buy the church, Rogers said, and to operate it as a lay-led parish with Eucharist supplied by sympathetic priests. That, Rogers said, is how the closed-but-occupied church is now running, and, he said, it draws hundreds to Mass each week and about 700 to Mass on Easter.

“I believe vigil churches are the new prototype for Catholic churches in America,’’ he said. “We are returning to basics.’’

But Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, disagreed.

“That is not a Catholic church,’’ he said. “There is a structure to how a parish is set up.’’

Anne Green, a former member of Sacred Heart Church in Natick who was arrested for trespassing on Christmas Eve in 2004 while trying to keep vigil, said parishioners knew the odds were against them, but felt they had to try to preserve their beloved churches.

“We have an obligation to those who went before us and who paid for these churches and supported them for over 100 years, without any help from the archdiocese, by the way,’’ she said.

The other local parishes whose petitions were rejected, according to the Council of Parishes, include Our Lady of Lourdes in Revere, St. Anselm in Sudbury, St. Michael the Archangel in Lynn, Ste. Jeanne d’Arc in Lowell, and the Infant Jesus/St. Lawrence Parish in Brookline and Star of the Sea in Squantum, which have both been reopened as chapels.

Two other parishes, St. Therese in Everett and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in East Boston, are also occupied by vigil keepers, but have not appealed to the Vatican, said Bill Bannon, spokesman for the Council of Parishes.

Joan Noble, a former parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel whose immigrant grandfather contributed money to help build the church in 1906, is among a handful of people who pray the rosary on the steps of the former Polish church in West Lynn. She said her small band of worshippers would also fight the relegation to profane use. She lamented that shingles had fallen off the school, and that a large pothole had appeared in the driveway to the rectory.

“It’s just a mess,’’ she said.

The Vatican decisions were also decried by David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who said, “Sadly, these persistent Catholics are painfully learning what clergy sex abuse discovered long ago and relearn often, that internal church processes protect the church hierarchy and virtually no one else.

Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff and correspondent Jason Woods contributed to this report. Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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