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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

When churches close

12/29/2003

ARCHBISHOP SEAN O'Malley is signaling that pastoral purpose and not just financial concerns will guide his hand in any closings of parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston. Maximum involvement by lay Catholics would help make certain that words and deeds align.

Steven Krueger, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, sees the closings and consolidations as "the most momentous decision to be made in this diocese." Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization with 45 parish affiliates in the Boston Archdiocese, was formed in January 2002 to help survivors of clergy sexual abuse and expand the role of the laity in the governing and guidance of the church. The group is asking tough but fair questions, including: What are the criteria for closings, and who determined them? Which parishes will be closed? What entities will receive the money from closed parish bank accounts?

Elected officials are also speaking out, reminding church officials that the fates of parishes and wider neighborhoods are closely aligned.

Church officials have gone public with some details of what they term the "reconfiguration" of the 357 parishes in the archdiocese. But much remains unknown, including the level of lay involvement on the soon-to-be-appointed central committee that will advise O'Malley on closings and consolidations. Strong lay participation in this area would go far toward restoring trust and removing the layers of secrecy that characterized the church's handling of the child abuse crisis under the flawed leadership of the former archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law.

Faced with demographic shifts, aging buildings, and a decline in the ranks of the priesthood, archdiocese officials have prepared frameworks for deciding which parishes must go. In January and February, priests, parish workers, and lay people will gather into 80 mostly geographic clusters, each containing three to six parishes, and try to work out agreements on downsizing. In essence, the clusters are being given a mandate "to find a way to go from three to two," says the Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese. With aid from the central committee, the archbishop is expected to announce how individual churches fit into the reconfiguration in March. The first closings and consolidations could take place as early as June.

O'Malley, who arrived in Boston last summer, earned much respect by brokering a fast and fair settlement for hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse. But in the case of parish closings he may be moving too fast. Krueger challenges the wisdom of a process made without adequate input from lay people. Major real estate deals, he says, are often held up to public scrutiny to determine social and environmental impacts. But not in the case of the church.

"Where is that impact statement?" Krueger asks.

Prominent public figures are also speaking out on what they perceive as high-handedness on the part of the archdiocese. Secretary of State William Galvin suspects that the archdiocese has already selected the parishes to be closed.

"It's hard to think you can have a true process in three months," says Galvin. "I think there is a list."

Coyne denied that any such list exists, but he did say that some of the choices may be obvious based on the criteria used to determine the viability of parishes. To aid in its decision to close or merge, the archdiocese employs a "sacramental index" that includes figures on the number of baptisms, funerals, and marriages while also considering Sunday Mass attendance, distances between parishes, enrollment in religious education classes, and parish finances.

The index itself is coming under scrutiny. The Voice of the Faithful is asking how lay persons can refine or ratify the criteria. Galvin, who attends church regularly in Brighton, says the index seems better suited to determine the site of "a Dunkin' Donuts franchise" than a central institution in the life of a community.

"I'm troubled by the mathematical, cookie-cutter approach," says Galvin. The secretary of state also expresses fear that many families in the Allston-Brighton area will leave Boston if faced with the loss of parochial schools.

After closing 48 parishes over the last 18 years, the archdiocese is accustomed to emotional responses from parishioners. Now the church is also facing hardheaded public officials who link the health of parishes, especially urban parishes, with key social services and citywide efforts to improve public safety. O'Malley won't have an easy time winning city seals of approval, which he may need in upcoming sale and reuse negotiations with prospective buyers.

Mayor Stanley Usovicz of Salem says his city of roughly 40,000 already lost one Catholic church earlier this year and he expresses concern about the fate of the remaining five. The application of a pastoral index, he says, doesn't begin to capture the place of the church in Salem. `That's a rather vague indexing tool," says Usovicz. "It doesn't look at future growth." Many residents of Greater Boston, especially those with urban roots, know that the loss of a respected central institution such as a church or community center can quickly lead to disinvestment and neighborhood destabilization.

The archdiocese would be wise to address that concern by including a municipal official on the central committee that is advising the archbishop.

Precise information should also engender trust. For example, the archdiocese is analyzing the cost to repair its many aging buildings. But such figures will mean little without knowing if the repairs relate to the integrity of the buildings and the safety of parishioners or are cosmetic issues that can be deferred.

It is the accelerated schedule, however, that is most disturbing. Authentic lay involvement takes more than the few weeks now set aside for it. In dealing with the clergy sexual abuse crisis the archbishop showed his capacity for decisive action. What's needed now is careful deliberation.


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