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Spotlight Report

BC eyes archdiocese land; loans for church seen

By Michael Paulson, and Steve Bailey, Globe Staff, 12/5/2003

The Archdiocese of Boston's decision to sell 28 acres in Brighton, including the longtime residence of the city's Catholic cardinals, set off a frenzy of activity yesterday as Boston College officials began preparing to bid for the property, which the college has long desired, and two banks appeared ready to help the church with a massive loan.

The sale of the property is an essential piece of the church's plan to pay off an $85 million settlement with alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests. Two sources with knowledge of the arrangement said the archdiocese expects to sign a deal today to borrow a portion of the money from Citizens Bank and Century Bank, and that collateral for the loan will likely include the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.

The church hopes to sign a two-year bridge loan, which would be repaid from proceeds of the sale of the Brighton property and payments from two insurance companies that provided coverage to the archdiocese for abuse cases between 1977 and 1989. The archdiocese is now in mediation with the insurance companies, Kemper and Travelers, and has said it is prepared to file suit against them if a settlement cannot be reached.

The sources with knowledge of the loan arrangement said that, in addition to collateral in the form of church property, the loan would likely be guaranteed by several prominent local Catholics, including Peter Lynch, vice chairman of Fidelity Management & Research Co., and Robert J. Morrissey, a Boston attorney. Lynch could not be reached last night and Morrissey declined to comment.

Most of the loan would come from Citizens Bank, whose chairman, Lawrence K. Fish, has been emphasizing his bank's commitment to Boston, but Century Bank, whose president, Jonathan G. Sloane, sits on the board of Catholic Charities, is expected to contribute up to $10 million.

The archdiocese is also expected to borrow a portion of the $85 million fom the Knights of Columbus, which last year granted the church a $38 million line of credit to help the church cover its day-to-day expenses.

Church officials said they decided to announce how they are financing the $85 million settlement this week, before a meeting tomorrow between Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley and all the priests of the archdiocese, at which O'Malley is expected to outline a process for closing parishes next year. O'Malley thought it essential that Boston-area Catholics understand that parish closings are not related to the abuse settlement, and that the settlement is being financed by other means.

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to estimate how much money the church expects to realize from either the sale of the land or the settlement with the insurance companies. Estimates by people familiar with the issues have varied widely, ranging from $15 million to $50 million in insurance payouts and $30 million to $100 million for the land.

The acreage the church is planning to sell makes up just under half of the archdiocese's 60-acre campus in Brighton. The church is keeping the western portion of the land, which includes the chancery -- its adminstrative headquarters -- and St. John's Seminary.

The land being sold is largely undeveloped, but includes the bishop's residence, a gymnasium, and a garage. It also includes the tomb of Cardinal William H. O'Connell, which would likely be moved, depending on who the buyer is, church officials said.

All indications yesterday, from college, church, and political officials and from real estate executives, were that BC, a Catholic university that is located just across Commonwealth Avenue from the archdiocesan headquarters, is likely to wind up owning the land because of its location, its religious affiliation, and its resources. Development of the land could be complicated by neighborhood opposition and because zoning laws protect much of the land.

The 44-member BC board of trustees plans to discuss the land at its quarterly meeting today. The Rev. William P. Leahy, the college president, is expected to describe the archdiocese's plan to sell the land, but the board is not expected to take any immediate action.

"It's no secret that Boston College has been looking for additional land and, of all the options, this is certainly the most attractive because of its proximity to the university," said John M. Connors Jr., chairman of the college board of trustees. "If we can help the archdiocese now, and help ourselves, that will be a great pleasure."

Leahy declined to be interviewed yesterday, but his spokesman, John B. Dunn, suggested the college viewed the possible sale as more than a real estate deal. Dunn said that among the college's desires is "to assist in the settlement process" and said "we want to be helpful to the archdiocese."

Dunn said the university is primarily interested in land for playing fields, because its dense campus has little open space, particularly for non-varsity sports.

"It goes without saying that we're in desperate need of more space, and our two biggest needs are playing fields and more dorm space," said Charles I. Clough Jr., a former chairman of the BC board.

College officials would not rule out the possibility that the university would seek to develop part of the land. No college official would speculate as to how the college might use the bishop's residence, which was built in 1927 for O'Connell and was occupied by each of his successors until O'Malley last month moved into the rectory at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

Dunn said there have not been any talks between the church and the college about the property. Archdiocesan spokesman Coyne said the church plans to hire a broker to market the land; he said the archdiocese is hoping to fetch a large sum, but that it will not sell to a purchaser whose intentions conflict with Catholic teachings.

Michael J. Joyce, a partner at the real estate firm Richards Barry Joyce & Partners LLC, said BC is the land's most logical buyer.

"There are not too many opportunities to get that amount of acreage, whether it's universities or nonprofits that would be interested," he said.

There are possibilities for residential development of the land, Joyce and others said, though the economics make that unlikely. Single-family homes would not generate enough revenue to cover the price of the land, and a change of zoning to allow high-priced condominiums in a multifamily development, for example, would be a steep uphill battle.

While there has been some speculation that another suitor could be Harvard University, which has also been aggressively seeking to expand its campus, a Harvard spokeswoman yesterday flatly denied any desire by the school to purchase the property.

The parcel is part of one of 11 "conservation protection subdistricts" in the Allston-Brighton area. That restricts, but does not prohibit, development of the land; the restriction "allows for development but encourages low density, clustered developments and respect for the environment," BRA spokeswoman Meredith Baumann said.

Baumann said her agency would have to approve any development of the land. A commercial developer would be required to file a plan, which would be subject to review by neighbors and other city agencies for potential impact on traffic, neighborhood density, and city services such as water and sewer. An institutional developer, such as BC, would have to go through a similar process, analyzing its proposal in the light of the institution's overall impact and its future development plans.

"We will certainly listen to the community throughout this process," Baumann said. "Whatever goes there will be subject to an intensive process similar to any other large scale development."

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. and Ralph Ranalli of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Donovan Slack contributed to this report.

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


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