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Who Owns the Parish?

The outcomes of bankruptcy proceedings in three U.S. dioceses (Tucson, Portland, and Spokane) could have reverberations all over the U.S. In Boston, parishioners in 10 parishes are holding 24 hour vigils rather than accede to diocesan orders to close down. One parish, St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, has begun legal
proceedings in order to stay open. The issues are far from clear. The Boston Archdiocese says in civil law, it holds (and therefore controls) parish assets in a trusteeship.

Canonically, according to preeminent canon lawyer Fr. James Coriden, the assets belong to the “juridic entity” that collected them, in this case the parish. However, if the parish is “suppressed” by the appropriate canonical authority, it no longer exists, cannot ownanything, and the assets go to the diocese. If it merges with another parish, the assets theoretically go to the new entity. The Boston Archdiocese recently recently announced the closing some 83parishes because of the priest shortage and to assuage the ocean of red ink flowing from the sex abuse scandal. Since early 2002, Archdiocesan annual income declined by 50%. It has an unfunded pension liability of $80 million, an annual deficit of $10 million and owes $35 million borrowed three years ago to cover operating expenses.

On the other coast, the Portland Archdiocese is arguing in bankruptcy court that parish assets should not be included in its net worth. On July 6, the Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection as a way of dealing with lawsuits by over 60 plaintiffs seeking over $300 million dollars in damages for clergy sex abuse. Similar filings were made by Tucson on September 20 and Spokane on December 6. Portland judge Elizabeth Perris will not rule on the extent of Archdiocesan assets until early in 2005. Currently, the Archdiocese says its assets are worth 20 million. If the parishes are included, Archdiocesan total net worth could increase to $500 million.


Winter 2005



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