Out of Line A Catholic Parish Pays High Price For Independence.


Dispute With Archbishop Over Property, Control, Leads to Excommunication.


Power Struggles Across the U.S.


By SUZANNE SATALINE 
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 20, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- On the night before Christmas, parishioners of St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish Roman Catholic Church plan to join in what their archbishop considers a "gravely sinful" act.

After reciting Ojcze Nasz, the "Our Father" in Polish, hundreds of renegade parishioners expect to take Communion from their priest -- who has been stripped of his authority.

The parish, founded by immigrant Poles in the 1890s, has warred for nearly two years with St. Louis Archbishop Raymond L. Burke. The parish has a long history of operating independently. But the archbishop ordered the church to disband its board and place its property into a trust he would control. On Dec. 16, the archbishop announced the excommunication of St. Stan's six-member board for creating "a schism" within the church by hiring its own priest. The priest was also excommunicated. The religion's most extreme punishment, akin to spiritual ostracism, excommunication bars the priest and board from participating in sacraments such as Communion, confession and marriage rites.

"Morally, everyone in our congregation knows they didn't do anything wrong," says William Bialczak, the board's chairman, who was married at St. Stanislaus and has now been excommunicated. "It's all about property and money." He argues that the archbishop's effort to gain control of St. Stan's board was the first step toward closing and liquidating the parish, whose congregation of 450 includes many elderly members.

Against the backdrop of priest sex-abuse cases, the migration of urban congregants to the suburbs and a shortage of priests, Catholic dioceses across the country have been closing and consolidating parishes. The archdiocese of St. Louis, which has spent nearly $9 million on sex-abuse claims and legal costs, closed more than two dozen churches this year. Now parishioners from Boston to California are fighting back to prevent the dioceses from tapping parish properties as a source of cash. At stake are real estate, bank accounts and religious artwork valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars -- not to mention a hierarchy's frayed relationship with its flock.

Parishioners have filed lawsuits, lobbied public officials, staged vigils and petitioned government agencies to reverse diocesan decisions. In some instances, parishioners allege that dioceses are closing even well-attended churches to gain access to bank accounts or valuable property.

In the Catholic church, power flows down from the Pope, but most money flows up from local parishes. In general, dioceses assert ownership of parish property under church, or canon, law. Parishioners counter that, under civil laws regulating nonprofit organizations, they are the beneficiaries of assets held by the dioceses and that those assets shouldn't be disposed of without their approval. A key question in pending federal bankruptcy cases of the Portland, Ore., and Spokane, Wash., dioceses is whether parish assets belong to the dioceses and may be liquidated to compensate victims of priest sex abuse. A federal bankruptcy judge in Spokane ruled in August that the parish assets belong to the diocese.

Church leaders say they are reluctantly closing parishes and selling property not because of sex-abuse claims but demographics: Priests are in short supply; and Mass attendance and collections are down in urban parishes with aging sanctuaries and high maintenance costs. Many dioceses such as Boston's say the money is needed to support growing suburban parishes.

Catholic leaders say dissident parishioners are trying to stop inevitable changes and represent a minority view. Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says the fight over assets isn't a major issue and parish lawsuits are not a common event.

Still, settlements of sex-abuse claims nationwide have cost dioceses more than $1 billion -- a number that some say could double as more cases are settled. In addition to the dioceses in Portland and Spokane, the diocese in Tucson, Ariz., also filed for bankruptcy. Congregants have risen up to fight for parish property in New York, Ohio, California and Boston, epicenter of the abuse scandal.

The Boston Archdiocese has closed 62 parishes in the past two years, netting about $90 million in property sales. The archdiocese, which has paid $99.3 million in abuse claims and fees disclosed so far, sold off the archbishop's residence -- to Boston College -- to help pay for the settlements. In September, the Vatican found that Archbishop Sean O'Malley wrongly used assets from a parish that had been merged to pay general expenses at the diocese. The money, the decree stated, must follow parishioners to their new church. As with leaders in most other dioceses, Boston officials now say that no proceeds from the sale of churches will be used for sex-abuse settlements.

Parishioners from eight churches due to close have sued the Boston Archdiocese in state courts. Several parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston are seeking to recover a bank account with an unspecified sum and several statues of saints. Eileen Hanafin, 89 years old, sued to reclaim the $35,000 she gave St. James the Great in 2002 -- 28 months before the diocese closed the Wellesley, Mass., church. Rev. Mark O'Connell, a diocesan canon lawyer, says that parish property "is ultimately owned by the archdiocese." The judge has denied the diocese's motion to dismiss.

An 11-Year Quest

A grass-roots group of San Franciscans recently lost an 11-year quest to reopen St. Brigid's, a church built at the turn of the last century and decorated with Irish stained glass. The diocese says it would cost nearly $4 million to steel it against earthquakes and its sale would help pay for abuse settlements, totaling $63 million thus far. St. Brigid's is one of the few instances in which diocesan officials have publicly stated that proceeds from the sale of a parish will go to the sex-abuse settlements.

Since 1990, the St. Louis diocese has closed about 60 parishes, including 25 this year, and listed 19 churches for sale. To date, the diocese has spent $6.6 million on abuse settlements and counseling, and $2.3 million on legal fees, says the diocese's attorney, Bernie Huger. Money from church sales are channeled into parishes, not lawsuit settlements, the diocese says. It says that it used the proceeds from the sale of other diocesan property to help pay the sex-abuse settlements.

The effort to bring St. Stan's in line has never been about money, says Msgr. John Shamleffer, the diocesan canon lawyer. "We don't need their money," he says. "It's about who has governance over the parish."

Disputes over parish property date back to the 19th century. Bishops eager to expand their reach encouraged followers to build churches. In most cases, the parishioners relinquished the deeds when their bishops demanded it.

Unlike most parishes nationwide, St. Stan's kept the deed to its property and is incorporated with a lay board of directors. Completed in 1893, the church is a brick edifice with soaring Byzantine spires and multiple domes.

St. Stan's financial independence dates back to the 1960s, church members say, when the church abutted the crime-ridden Pruitt-Igoe housing project, now demolished. The parish tried to borrow money from the diocese to repair the church's bullet-pocked roof and windows, but the diocese refused. Urged on by their Irish pastor, members raised money and renovated, building a hall that seats hundreds for fund-raising suppers. Parish property and its bank account are valued at $9.3 million, board members say.

The city's first and oldest Polish church, St. Stan's is the only remnant of an era when the neighborhood was dotted with Polish groceries, bakeries selling sweet bread called babka and the publishing house that printed the weekly Przewodnik Polski newspaper.

Most members of the aging congregation are second-generation, middle and working-class Poles. Raised by Polish-speaking parents and grandparents, they grew up in the rowhouses near St. Stan's, but began moving out to the sprawling suburbs in the late 1960s.

Board member Joseph Rudawski, 79, a former school principal, became active with the parish in 1969, when its money was depleted. He says the parish built the bank account by taking their CD and running from one bank to the next to "see if we could beat the rate by a quarter of a percent." Later they invested in the stock market.

Like the other longtime members, board members stay with the parish out of loyalty to ancestors; Mr. Bialczak figures he passes 10 churches on his ride in every Sunday. Most parishioners know only enough Polish to sing the songs at the annual Polka Mass, but not enough to converse. Some members worry that with so many retirees, the parish may not be well supported if they don't woo younger Catholics.

Less than two months after arriving in St. Louis in January 2004, from La Crosse, Wis., Archbishop Burke sought to finish a project begun by his predecessor -- reining in St. Stan's. In a letter dated March 19, 2004, he asked that St. Stan's congregants comply with "the norm of church law" by relinquishing administration of all property and monies.

"It is simply not right that a parish call itself Catholic and be so recognized by Church authority, and, at the same time, be under the exclusive direction of a civil corporation," he wrote. If the board refused to conform, he warned, "I will have no choice but to declare that Saint Stanislaus is no longer a Roman Catholic Parish."


A week later, Archbishop Burke stood beneath St. Stan's frescoed archangels and appealed to hundreds of parishioners, as TV news cameras rolled. Several church members booed. A man held aloft a sign listing parishes Archbishop Burke had closed in Wisconsin. Archbishop Burke told a television reporter, "The archdiocese doesn't gain anything financially from this."

Roger Krasnicki, a parishioner and former IRS attorney, responded by flying to Rome in April 2004 and asking for a hearing with the Vatican. "There is no question but that this Archdiocese is seeking sources of cash to pay off sex abuse victims," Mr. Krasnicki wrote in his request. Vatican officials declined to grant him a hearing, although they did look over his filings.

The diocese, meanwhile, outlined a plan for a new nonprofit board, whose actions would require the archbishop's approval. The archbishop in a letter to the parish gave an assurance that the church would not be closed "so long as the Polish-speaking faithful and faithful of Polish heritage continue to gather there and to provide the support necessary for the Parish."

In July 2004, after accusing their previous pastor of misusing funds, St. Stan's board decided to oversee the depositing of weekly collections, a role usually left to the pastor. Archbishop Burke removed the pastor. An audit found no financial problems, but the archbishop declined to name a successor.

For a while, parishioners were able to arrange for priests to perform weddings and baptisms. But when parish members died suddenly, family members struggled to find a priest for a funeral Mass. Instead of Mass, the parish has a Sunday prayer service.

Not all of the parishioners opposed the archbishop. In October 2004, dozens of parishioners, including recent arrivals from Poland some of whom had belonged to the 1980s Solidarity movement, accused board members of acting illegally, and labeled them arrogant for ignoring the archbishop's demands. Fifty to 75 of these critics left for another church, which the archbishop designated as the chief Polish church in the diocese.

'A Clear Affront'

On Nov. 11, 2004, the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy sided with the archbishop, concluding that the parish was not complying with canon law. "The actions of the Board of Directors in attempting to take control of the Parish represent a clear affront to the authority of the Church and the intentions of the Parish founder," the Vatican board wrote Mr. Krasnicki. "You have attempted...to transform St. Stanislaus Parish into an entity which has no resemblance to a parish."

The archbishop soon handed down what would be his final offer: The church property would be placed in a charitable trust, which he would control, with the promise that no other parish could use its funds. St. Stan's parish could hold no more than $10,000 in assets and could not raise money without his approval. St. Stan's leaders asked that the board be made up of parishioners. The archbishop refused. He said he would allow the pastor and six parishioners of his choice to serve as the board if he, the sole corporation member, had the final word. The directors turned him down.

The board scheduled a vote in January, asking the parish if it should cede the property and money to the archbishop. If parishioners did not agree, the archbishop warned in a letter, "I will consider your refusal to be a final decision not to maintain a Roman Catholic parish."

Defying him, a majority of parishioners voted not to relinquish the assets. On Feb. 10 this year, the archbishop placed the six board members under interdict, a milder punishment than excommunication that also strips sacramental rights. The archbishop said he imposed the punishment "with the fervent and constant hope and prayer that you will be led to repentance and reparation."

Nevertheless, the congregation persisted. Recognizing that St. Stan's couldn't continue as a church without being able to offer baptisms, weddings and funerals, the parish agreed in August that the board should hire a full-time priest on its own. Last month, the Rev. Marek Bozek, 31, a Polish priest from the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese, signed a contract to become St. Stan's pastor. His bishop suspended him, making it illicit under canon law for him to grant penance or conduct a marriage. Archbishop Burke reminded Catholics "that to participate knowingly and willingly in the celebration of the Mass by a suspended priest is gravely sinful."

Father Bozek says he became committed to helping St. Stan's after the archbishop refused to allow him to provide sacraments to St. Stan's parishioners at his own church. "At the Last Judgment....what would He say?: 'You remained in your safety and comfort zone. And you did not help me.' I just cannot say no."

Last Friday, Archbishop Burke took action. By hiring a suspended priest, board members committed the "ecclesiastical crime of schism," he wrote, and "automatically incur the penalty of excommunication." The same went for Father Bozek. Unlike persons who are interdicted, those excommunicated cannot serve in any church position -- including reader, usher or pastor's assistant.

The archbishop also said he will be "obliged to suppress" St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, which means that it will cease to be a diocesan church. Parishioners who continue to receive sacraments from the excommunicated priest could be excommunicated themselves, says Msgr. Shamleffer, the archdiocesan lawyer.

Mr. Bialczak, the board chairman, says the parish won't yield. If it's drummed out of the Catholic Church, he says, St. Stan's will become independent. "When this priest comes here and we start having Mass and communion, I'll have it from him," he says. "He's still a man of God."

Write to Suzanne Sataline at:  suzanne.sataline@wsj.com1

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 December 20, 2005.