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Boston Torn by Parish Closings

As Some Churches Get Reprieve, Bishop Strives to Heal Rift

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page A03

BOSTON, Nov. 16 -- When Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley announced in May that dozens of Boston area parishes would be closed, he acknowledged the difficulty of the task at hand.

"Today is not an easy day," he said in naming 83 parishes to be shuttered -- about one-fifth of those in the nation's fourth-largest Catholic community -- because of declining Mass attendance, dwindling finances and a shortage of priests.

At St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, Mass., worshipers stayed in the building to prevent church authorities from closing the parish for good. (Lisa Poole -- AP)

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Nearly six months later, 47 churches are gone, and the controversial process has ignited a divisive spate of litigation and organized revolt among lay Catholics here who feel they had too little say in how the reconfiguration unfolded.

Around-the-clock vigils have prevented church officials from shutting down at least eight parishes. Last week, 18 others set to close by mid-January were offered additional time. Six have accepted the reprieve and received extensions ranging from a few weeks to several months. But even that offer drew criticism from people whose parishes already closed and were not given the same opportunity.

O'Malley, who arrived just over a year ago, seeking to restore faith in an institution badly damaged after the clergy abuse scandal, said last week that the closings have proved the greatest challenge of his religious life.

"I joined the monastery knowing that I would have to do difficult things," he wrote in a letter distributed Saturday to parishes and news organizations. "But I never imagined I would have to be involved in anything so painful or so personally repulsive to me as this."

Widespread displeasure led last summer to two lawsuits against the archdiocese and several appeals to the Vatican for reconsideration. A new tactic of civil disobedience began in September when worshipers at St. Albert the Great parish in Weymouth began occupying the building in defiance of church authorities.

Seven other parishes have followed suit, including St. Anselm, in Sudbury, a suburb west of Boston, where on Tuesday groups of children used the building to do homework and a local book club held its regular meeting, said Jennifer Balser, a dance therapist who has taken a regular shift during the vigil.

The archdiocese has largely avoided confrontations with protesting parishioners, but many Catholics here were outraged when Gene Sweeney, 69, was arrested earlier this month and charged with trespassing for refusing to leave after a Saturday service at the Immaculate Conception Church, in Winchester.

(The archdiocese has since asked prosecutors to drop the charges.)

In response to the mounting unrest, O'Malley made his most revealing statements to date about the state of the church's finances and how the contentious issue has affected him. "At times I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish this job, but I keep waking up in the morning to face another day of reconfiguration," he wrote, in the 1,500-word letter.

The closings and subsequent sale of property were necessary, he added, because of the church's financial straits, including a $10 million annual deficit and an $80 million pension liability.

In a statement responding to the letter, the Council of Parishes, a group formed last month to advocate on behalf of churches selected to close, asked the archdiocese to implement a six-month "prayerful pause" in the process to "allow spirits to heal." It also requested that Masses be permitted in the parishes where sit-ins are underway.

Peter Borre, co-chairman of the council, said he was "astounded by the depth of emotion" in O'Malley's letter and that he accepts church officials' argument that because of demographic shifts that have led to fewer observant Catholics in the region, some parishes must close.

But he pointed to O'Malley's financial disclosures as evidence of fiscal mismanagement that he feels has not been adequately explained. "The question is what is happening to the archdiocese's finances, and the answer is we don't know," he said. "The process has been so top-down, so autocratic."

O'Malley first announced last December that some parishes would be closed and that the most likely targets were those that could be folded into neighboring churches and those lacking adjoining school facilities.

At the time, he said the changes were unrelated to the abuse crisis that surfaced here in 2002 and for which the archdiocese agreed in September 2003 to an $85 million court settlement with victims.

But the complex reconfiguration process, which called for recommendations to be made to the archdiocese by regional clusters of five or six churches, never sat well with many Catholics here. "It was like voting someone off the island," Borre said. "Basically, it was fratricide."

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