Bishop Accountability

By Lisa Gentes
Pilot (official newspaper of the Boston archdiocese)
August 30, 2002

[The following article responds to a two-part article {1} {2} in the Boston Herald, printed with a table of land owned by the archdiocese, with assessment values listed. has also sorted that table in descending order of assessment value. The Herald also ran an editorial.]

The selling of archdiocesan land, buildings and property was the subject of a series of articles in the Boston Herald this week. A front page story entitled, “Land Rich, Archdiocese has millions in unused property,” ran in the Aug. 27 edition, along with two accompanying articles and a full page listing estimated property values. The Boston daily ran a follow-up story, “Alleged priest abuse victims rip church over excess land,” Aug. 28. The Herald reported that they reviewed state, county and local land records for three months in order to produce their estimate of the total value of archdiocesan-owned property that is no longer in use, such as vacant schools, churches, buildings and land. According to the Herald report, that total is $159,393,996. The archdiocese said the Herald’s account was not correct.

Father Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the multi-million dollar figure the Boston Herald reported was not accurate because the report counted property such as Regina Cleri and St. Ignatius, Chestnut Hill, which are, in fact, still in use.

“In the case where the building is not being used for pastoral purposes, the building is still part of the property of the parish,” Father Coyne stated. “The parish may be renting it out and the parish may be using that rent to fund its work.”

Donna Morrissey, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the “uses of Church property are much more complex than that reported by the Boston Herald article.” She stated that rental agreements and leases benefit the many parishes of the archdiocese. Morrissey said many times the rental agreements allow parishes to use the property outside of the hours contained in the lease. “For example, in Franklin, at St. Mary Church, there is a building that is leased, but outside of the lease the property provides space for the religious education classes for over 2,500 children and provides space for parish activities and community events,” she stated.

Morrissey said leases provide parishes with tenants who maintain and repair the property. “Leased properties provide service to the local community, for example the Federal Street building in Salem is used for a public school. These properties are leased for non-profit, educational and social service uses,” she added.

When asked if Cardinal Bernard Law could possibly sell properties and land owned by the archdiocese, Father Coyne said, “If he were to do so, according to Canon Law, if that would happen, it would have to be done in consultation with the parish community.”

Under civil law the cardinal, as a corporation sole, is considered the owner of the property, however, under Canon Law there are different rules and laws the cardinal must abide by. The spokesman said that under Canon Law “the cardinal cannot just come in and decide to take possession of properties and sell it. The property is part of the parish. It is constructed and funded specifically for and by the community of the faithful, and for that purpose.”

Land and property owned by the archdiocese does not necessarily mean fast money for the use of the archdiocese or the archbishop. “As any businessman or woman would tell you, or as any accountant would tell you, property assets do not, are not in any way, as liquid or available in the same way as cash,” Father Coyne stated. “Just because we supposedly have this property does not mean that that property is free and available for use as cash.”

However, the archdiocese in not completely close-minded when it comes to the suggestion of property sales. “The archdiocese of Boston has never said that we are not open in any way to the sale of property,” Father Coyne said. “If any[thing], we won’t sell any property until after the settlements, until we know how much money we have to raise.”

The spokesman said the archdiocese was only asked for comment by the Herald the day before the story ran. “We heard about it early in the morning and then they sent us a large list of very involved questions later in the day where we could not possibly answer in time for their deadline.”

The archdiocese did comment in terms of a general response, Father Coyne noted.

“It wasn’t a fair story; it wasn’t accurate,” he added. “To claim that we have all this property that therefore can easily be transformed into a large amount of cash for settlements is not fair at all to the archdiocese, and not fair at all to how this works out in any institutional walk of life.”

Jack Sullivan, one of the Boston Herald reporters who wrote the series of articles, said he stands by his story. Sullivan said he and his colleagues began researching the story idea shortly after the archdiocesan Finance Council reneged on the alleged Geoghan settlement in May. The reporters wrote the story on Aug. 23 and 26 and sought comment from the archdiocese on Aug. 26 and 27 for the following day’s story, respectively, according to Sullivan. “The archdiocese didn’t dispute the ownership or the existence of the properties, at least to me,” he said.


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