St. Patrick’s Church was one of the Archdiocese of St. John’s churches sold to pay a settlement to Mount Cashel Orphanage abuse victims. Photo courtesy Anna Jasinska

St. John’s closures ‘canonically unsound’

  • April 24, 2024

Having ruled that the Archdiocese of St. John’s closing of a number of parishes was canonically unsound, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Clergy has further said that civil law does not trump canonical rights. 

The dicastery wrote that Holy Rosary and St. Patrick’s Parish are juridic persons with financial rights and obligations and the “grave financial state of the Archdiocese does not give the Archdiocese the canonical right to usurp the finances of that parish for the use of the Archdiocese.”

The Archdiocese was found “vicariously liable” for the physical and sexual abuse perpetrated at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s by the Christian Brothers. To raise the money to pay the victims, the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John’s filed for bankruptcy in December 2021 and began liquidating its holdings and merging parishes the following year.

Eighteen of the archdiocese’s 34 churches were included in the March 2022 notice of sale, and 13 were sold by July. Devoted members of soon-to-be shuttered parishes suddenly had to bid a reluctant farewell to their sacred worship place. 

Groups from Holy Rosary and St. Patrick’s challenged St. John’s Archbishop Peter Hundt’s closing and selling their parishes to meets the Archdiocese’s obligations. Ed Martin, who served as procurator for Holy Rosary Parish, said the ruling has opened up the possibility of more parishes bringing their case to the Vatican to suppress the Archdiocese’s move. He said after an April 18 presentation on the Holy Rosary and St. Patrick’s cases, people from “five or maybe six” parishes have expressed a preliminary interest in taking that next step.

About 100 people attended in person or online the presentation by Philip Gray on the ruling. Gray is the canon lawyer who secured the decrees from the Dicastery for the Clergy that the closure, relegation to profane use and selling of multiple St. John’s area parishes were canonically unsound.

Gray, president of the St. Joseph Foundation, encouraged petitioners to act with “a spirit of charity and discipline” in resolving their disputes and to understand that Hundt was, and is, “in a difficult position to take responsibility for actions of his predecessors.” Gray advocated for the congregants to have “faith in God and the Church He has created and use it in obedience and respect so your concerns can be properly addressed.” If you do so, “you will have hope and not be bitter,” no matter the outcome.

Martin concurs with Gray’s philosophy. He “thinks that it is critical” for parishioners to act with that disposition and be mindful of Gray’s point that “we can’t know what was on the heart and mind of the archbishop. We know he was in a difficult position with the claims.” 

“(On) the other hand, the Vatican has decreed whatever issues he had to take care of, clearly, he didn’t follow the law of the Church.”

Gray declared that the proper canonical procedure to close a parish involves a comprehensive consultation process. Before a meeting, Hundt would have needed to produce and disseminate a detailed report about each parish’s demographics and financials and clearly outline the harms and benefits of a closure. Everyone at the meeting would have a right to speak before a required vote. Gray said if you don’t follow these steps, “the subsequent decision is invalid.”

Gray said a bishop or archbishop would also need a “just cause” to “extinguish or alter” a specific parish. The lawyer said general diocesan financial or clergy problems would be “illegitimate causes” as it does not explicitly concern the parish. The cleric must also publish a written decree explaining the “just cause” behind the pronouncement and outlining how to challenge the order. Everyone affected by the decision must be able to access this statement easily.

Hundt received word about Gray’s meeting on April 18, and he sent an email to parishes, pastors, pastoral staff and parish finance chairs the following day. A source provided The Catholic Register with this internal email on the condition of anonymity.

Hundt wrote about how the presentation consisted of Gray “discussing his opinion that the Archdiocese did not have the canonical right to sell the parish churches and parish properties of the diocese and use the finances from these sales for archdiocesan purposes.” He noted the “presentation did not deal with Canadian civil law or the civil law obligations of the Archdiocese to the victims of sexual abuse.” He contended there is “a substantive difference between Canadian civil law and Church canon law as to the right of ownership of the buildings and properties of the Archdiocese of St. John’s.”

The archdiocese “has been following the dictates of civil law in respect to honouring our obligations to the victims of sexual abuse,” wrote Hundt, while discerning “how best to do so within the context of also respecting the canon law rights of our parishioners.”

The Register asked Hundt why civil law has precedence over canon law, how canon law rights were respected and why the Dicastery for the Clergy’s rulings were not mentioned in the communique. 

Hundt did not answer those queries directly, but he did state the “April 19 email was sent to the priests, parishes and parish finance council chairs for information purposes, so that they would be aware that this meeting had taken place and of what was presented at the meeting.” He then repeated how the archdiocese is following civil law while also continuing to “try to discern how best to also respect the canon law rights of our parishioners.”

Regarding the 369 Mount Cashel plaintiffs that have emerged, Gray said the victims “deserve justice and restitution.” Still, he lamented how these lawsuits against dioceses cause lay worshippers pain. The parishioners “are left holding the bag” and lose their church.

Martin said it is vital for people to know “that we’re not trying to undermine the victims here. We believe they are victims, and they have a right to compensation. Everyone who attended the meeting in person on Thursday agreed. We’re not trying to create problems.” He said it is also crucial for “the person in a pew to realize they have certain rights under canon law.”

Gray, who resides in Hopedale, Ohio, intends to visit St. John’s within a month. In the meantime, he suggested interested parishes appoint representatives who will report to an archdiocesan mediation team who will receive direct guidance and instruction. He wants to establish a fluid system that will enable his team to help as many interested parishes as possible without overwhelming the other cases his organization has on its plate.

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