This could affect all of us

This could affect all of us

An impending court battle in Tucson, Arizona, could affect every Catholic in the US. At issue is who owns parishes? The diocese or the parishes themselves? Now, canon law is clear. Parishes are juridical persons in themselves, at the disposition of the bishop. In other words, they are independent of the diocesan structure in most things, although still subject to control of the bishop who may suppress them, merge them, and so on, within the bounds of canon law. But does canon law hold up in secular court?

If the courts decide that parishes are the property of the diocese, then watch out because the lawyers will be coming. Lawyers for abuse victims will see dollar signs and they will be coming with liquidation orders. If you think parish closings are bad now, you haven’t seen anything yet. And they won’t use kid gloves. The lawyers liquidating parishes will come with eviction notices and sheriff’s deputies, not the kid gloves of the archbishop of Boston.

The question then becomes what happens if a parish’s church is closed and sold off to pay some legal settlement at the order of a judge and then the people of that parish build a new church? Can the judge come along and claim that too? Is any money given by laypeople for a Catholic charitable purpose automatically available for seizure by plaintiffs seeking payment on their damage claims? What will happen to the ability of Catholics to practice their religion in freedom? There are some ugly potential ramifications in all this.

  • I had been wondering about that. 

    However, why not go whole hog, then, and seize the cathedrals?  That’s where lots of the good stuff is in any diocese.

    I’m not sure what they think they can liquidate.  Many of the items in Catholic churches are sellable only to other Catholic churches, or maybe some Lutheran or Anglican churches.  Maybe some more modern churches could be easily converted into condos, but I don’t see that the building would get much cash—the land would have to be pretty valuable to make it worth the lawyers’ while. 

    What might be easier pickings are other properties the churches own.  My mother’s church owns some houses that it uses to provide shelter for families in crisis.  I’m sure the lawyers will be real popular for seizing such properties.  Some parishes own group homes and the like.  Yeah, let’s shut down ministries to drug addicts.  Then there are the schools.  Shutting down Catholic schools.  That may not even be popular with the public schoolteacher unions, as that’s where a lot of their kids go…

    Oh, they think the bad publicity will be only on the Church’s side… ha.  Not that the lawyers would care… until it pushes more voters to pass caps on damages and lawyers fees for these types of cases.

  • It’s not the church buildiners, per se, but the property they’re sitting on that is valuable. And lots of churches sit on valuable land where cities and towns have grown up around them.

    In Boston, just one parish that is slated for closure is sitting on a parcel estimated to be worth $11 million.

    And any repercussions on the closings would be turned around and blamed on bishops who allowed perverts to molest kids.

  • The questions you ask help explain the now widely-scorned doctrine of charitable immunity.  If you sue a for-profit corporation, a resulting award or settlement can fairly be regarded as coming out of the pockets of the shareholders, who ultimately hired the employees who actually committed the tort at issue.  But if you sue a church or other charity, the real losers are not the priests, bishops, or managers who actually committed the tort, but the parishioners and beneficiaries who didn’t.

    But don’t look for a revival of the doctrine of charitable immunity any time soon.  The overarching principle of tort law today is that the injured must be compensated, regardless of whether those who foot the bill are really responsible for the injury.

  • I should have said “the injured (and their attorneys”.  One must never overlook how much of modern tort law is driven by the need to fill the pockets of plaintiffs’ lawyers.

  • I think the Catholic congregationalists are throwing up a smokescreen with talk of “juridical persons”.  It’s true—but so what?

    As in a civil law, in canon law, a person cannot sue himself.  The bishop cannot sue himself.

    The lawyers have already come and consider all the property of the parishes to be the bishops.

    If the people contribute to any charity which is in debt, that debt must be paid off before the “new” money is applied to charitable purposes unless some sort of agreement has been worked out with the creditor.