By Michael O'Malley / The Plain Dealer
Religion News Service
CLEVELAND (RNS) A Catholic bishop, acting on what he believes to be good for his entire diocese, can close any parish, even if the parish is financially stable and has vibrant membership, the Vatican's highest court has ruled.
The decision does not bode well for a string of Cleveland churches that have already been closed by Bishop Richard Lennon, but have appeals pending in a Vatican court.
"This is very significant," said Peter Borre, a Catholic activist in Boston who represents 10 churches in that city in their appeals to Rome. "The message is: 'No parish is safe.'"
Robert Tayek, a spokesman for the Cleveland Diocese, declined to comment, saying church officials had not seen the Vatican ruling.
The ruling, made public late last week when it was translated from the original Latin, came on the heels of the Vatican denying the appeals of all 10 Boston churches, which began that process six years ago.
Meanwhile, at least five Cleveland area parishes that closed this year received letters from a Vatican judicial panel saying it needed more time to consider their appeals and extended the hearing deadlines to Nov. 30.
Even with the denial of the appeals in Boston, some here are keeping their fingers crossed.
"I hope the Vatican seriously starts to question what these bishops are doing," said Patricia Schulte-Singleton, head of a group called Endangered Catholics, which has been battling the local closings. "Otherwise, it's going to get out of control and people will start walking away from the Catholic Church."
Lennon, who closed churches in Boston as an auxiliary bishop before coming to Cleveland four years ago, recently completed a downsizing of the eight-county diocese by closing 50 churches, mostly in inner-city neighborhoods.
He has said the closings were necessary because of shrinking congregations, decreases in collection basket cash and a shortage of priests.
Borre, an expert on church law and an adviser to some Cleveland churches fighting the closings, said the diocese cannot sell the church properties and distribute their assets while they are under appeal.
Borre, who had already battled Lennon in Boston, acknowledged that the Vatican's ruling dealt a major blow to his effort to keep churches open, but he vowed to keep fighting.
"We'll challenge Lennon every step of the way," he said. "If you want to call it economic warfare, you're close."
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