The Elliot St. Spin Machine Updated

Point/Counterpoint: This week the WMC news team examines:


I was betting that the bishop's Spin Machine would go into overdrive after the recent appeals of 9 parishes (out of 14) went public. Hoo, boy, was I right.

By the way, there is a debate why the number of parishes affected by the changes varies from 14 (as reported by the Republican for the last few weeks) and 19 (as reported in this chancery article). I just found out the reason - according to the Diocese, 5 of the affected parishes were given extensions until next year. Still, 9 out of 19 is nearly 50% - an ungodly percentage of opposition, especially since the Diocese likes to claim that the process was "fair and transparent". Like, everybody is on board with this, and everything has been up front? Don't think so.

Also, by the way, I attended a meeting at Indian Orchard Immaculate Conception Church on Mon. night. I was most impressed. This is a parish family. They appear to be well on their way to saving their parish from an arbitrary and inept death sentence imposed by church officials. Their pastor is a priest of integrity. His pastoral care for his people does not allow him to desert them in their time of need. May God bless him and keep him. It's a good sign that the number of publicly visible priests of integrity in the Diocese has doubled in the last few weeks!

For those not paying attention, the other one is Fr. Jim Scahill.

Two documents were read. One was from Bishop McDonnell acknowledging receipt of their appeal. He stated that the appeal was premature as he has not issued the official decree yet, and advised re-sending the appeal after he has issued the decree.

This is a little puzzling because in many other situations the bishop has issued closing notices as announcements from the pulpit and not even bothered to publish a decree (the announcement from the pulpit serving as the public "notification"). The big problem with the pulpit notifications is that they are like dropping a bomb on the congregation - there is no time to group together and respond in 10 days if you don't see it coming! Plus, using the pulpit reinforces that all chancery decisions are for "the good of the Church", and these governance decisions are more likely to be perceived as connected to faith and morals. In recent years as appeals have become more common, the decrees have been published in diocesan newspapers or on the web, which is certainly an improvement.

The other announcement was that Msgr. Bonzagni is inviting all pastors to form a committee from their parishioners and attend a workshop. The purpose of the workshop is to help parishes, including appealing parishes, better grapple with changes due to the recent announcements about closings, mergers and so on. His fax states explicitly that participants must be hand-picked by the pastors and that it is not a "gripe" session and that there will be no discussion allowed on the topics of changing any of the decisions and that all of the decisions will be made as planned.

I could be wrong, but I believe that the title of the workshop is something like "Moving On". This seems almost like a fake headline (the only thing missing is the exclamation point [Moving On!] at the end) but the depth of diocesan incompetence is so deep that they might just have convinced themselves that this is a good way to cheer people up and win their cooperation. I couldn't help but notice that the fax included "...I apologize for faxing this but it's necessary due to the urgency of the situation...". Does that sound frantic to anyone else?

At any rate, the audience at IOICC did not think much of the idea.

After debate it was decided not to attend the meeting, since the attendance of parish representatives would send the message that the parish accepted the decision that they will be closed. End of story on that one.

Below are excerpts from an article on IObserve, the web site of chancery world headquarters. I highly recommend that those interested in the appeals read the article. My comments are in brackets [like this].

This article is great news for the appealing parishes. On the surface all is well, but look closer and you can see the beads of sweat. And believe me, I can see the sweat stains from here. The hypocrisy and incoherence between the lines proves that the chancery is on the run. There can be no other explanation.

To start, here's the making-lemonade-out-of-lemons headline for the fact that 65% of the parishioners in the soon-to-be-altered parishes in the Springfield area refuse to fall on the sword:


By Terence Hegarty

SPRINGFIELD – Since late last month, many parishioners in Hampden and Hampshire counties have been dealing with pain, sorrow and questions......As of press time, nine parishes had each filed an appeal with Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell regarding the decisions concerning their parishes..........“Appeals are a normal part of the process,” said Msgr. John J. Bonzagni, director of the diocese’s Pastoral Planning Office. “Often, parishioners need to feel that they’ve done everything they can. That’s perfectly understandable.”....................

[my comment: Unbelievable! Number one, appeals in the Springfield Diocese are almost unheard of! 9 out of 14 is a huge number, no matter how you spin it! But wait, maybe the Monsignor has a point. Maybe I'm too harsh. Maybe he's right that this is "normal" and that the Bishop actually enjoys having parishioners marching on his front lawn on Sunday morning with signs saying "DON'T DESTROY OUR HOME"?????

AS IF!!!!

No, Monsignor, this is not group therapy, parishioners are not kids with scraped knees, and appeals are NOT a normal part of the process! And by the way, saying that "...parishioners need to feel that they’ve done everything they can..." is patronizing and insults the dignity of the laity, thank you very much.

Appeals are a rejection of the process! I can give first-hand experience because my parish, St. Francis in So. Lee, was closed abruptly in 2006. It wasn't easy, but we learned how to appeal on our own. Guess who our priest was? Bonzagni! Guess who never lifted a finger to help us appeal? Bonzagni! He vanished!!! Throughout the entire appeal process, which took about two years, no local cleric lifted a finger to help us, and every other parish which appealed will tell you the exact same thing! Believe!

On the other hand, we were treated with courtesy and efficiency by the Papal Nuncio in Washington, and received several important documents from Rome explaining (in broken English) why they were supporting the local bishop. We got the full treatment, formal Latin documents, several times, with lovely embossed Papal Seals on them.

At least we were heard! Guess what we got from Bishop McDonnell? The sum total of his involvement was two short paragraphs basically telling us to get lost! In two years! And, he sent those only when he had to. Otherwise, we were totally ignored, especially in the first 30 days, when he "responded by not responding"! So much for pastoral concern! So, to say that "...this is a normal part of the process..." is nothing but spin-o-matic, pure and simple.

The reality is that Bonzagni and the Bishop are PRAYING that the parishioners fold up like a cheap suitcase, the sooner the better! Believe it! Mark my words, everything the Elliot St. Spin Machine will say and do about this subject in the next month or so will be designed to knock down the appeals by getting parishioners to change their minds! ]

....Two other parishes that have decided not to wait to work together are St. Mary of the Assumption and St. John the Baptist parishes in Ludlow. ...............Father John E. Connors, pastor at St. Mary Parish, said he and his parishioners responded to the news of the merger with a variety of emotions. “People had many feelings that included shock and surprise, sadness and grief,” he said. “Continued feelings of anxiety and shock still linger.”
But, he said the parishioners and he began to work together with St. John parishioners and their pastor, Msgr. Homer P. Gosselin.
“There has been a long history of sharing and caring for one another,” Father Connors wrote in a letter to St. Mary parishioners that he sent out earlier this month. “And that should not stop now.”......

[my comment: again, appeals are not about negative emotions and group therapy! the laity are capable of more than sorrow, pain, anxiety and shock! How about questions that deserve an answer? how about justifiable anger!! how about disgust with the process??!! Is there any one left who thinks that SECRET MEETINGS are a good way to govern?

in case anyone is missing the point, the "cooperating" and "sharing and caring" parishioners are the ones portrayed as wearing the white hats! The other ones (that would be the appealing parishioners, of course) are the ones with the black hats! Does everybody get that? There can be no other explanation for why the editing of the article implies that "sharing and caring" is ONLY possible by working together and accepting the changes! Like, it's not possible to "share and care" if you're appealing? or, if you're not gung-ho for the changes? Apparently not!

Does anyone else notice that the article on Iobserve (which is supposedly "journalism") quotes NO ARGUMENTS from the other points of view, or from the appealing parishes? Hey, all of a sudden, it's like they don't exist!! Gee, I wonder why??!! Are they suddenly not Catholic???

Okay, here's WHY they say this. The Diocese sees the situation in black and white. There are no shades of gray, and there is no reasonable doubt. And especially, there is NO REASON TO THINK that the Bishop will change his mind! There are only parishioners who "work together" and.....................the other kind!]

.....Father Connors told Iobserve that members of each parish council have begun working together and that a merger steering committee has already met................. According to Msgr. Gosselin, five suggestions as to a new parish name to be used when the parishes are merged are being proposed. He said they plan to put the five suggestions on ballots in the pews and have parishioners vote for their preferences.

[my comment: once again, unbelievable spin from the Elliot St. Spin Machine, this time from Monsignor Gosslein, who, like Monsignor Bonzagni and Pomerleau, is a honcho on Elliot St. The message is clear.

"beginning to work together" between parish councils means having a steering committee meeting AFTER the grown-up decision has been made by Elliot St., not BEFORE the decision. If a committee of parishioners met BEFORE the decision, and if it wasn't a secret meeting, maybe the Diocese would have a decision influenced by rank and file parishioners...and, frankly, WHO WANTS THAT???

So, if you live on Elliot St., this makes perfect sense...having parish councils working out the details AFTER the decision has been made. Now here's a question for Elliot St......if the parish councils are as important as you say they are, then why do less than half of the parishes in the diocese have one? Also, if parish councils are so important AFTER the decision, then why are they not important enough to give advice BEFORE the decision, or even to KNOW ABOUT the decision? Ask that question and I guarantee you will get (((radio silence))). Again, the Elliot St. Spin Machine is working overtime.

As for the idea of a "vote" for a name, once again, spin me like around again, Corky, I'm lovin' it! The only reason voting is being publicized now is because parishes elsewhere in the Diocese were outraged (and rightfully so) when they had a new, made-up-on-Elliot-Street name imposed on them after a merger without a shred of input.

By the way, voting has always been allowed by canon law. Is there any doubt why the chancery is thinking of using it now? Exactly, because now they feel like they need to! They're on the run! The Elliot St. Spin Machine is working overtime to convince the appealing parishioners that the chancery has just discovered Democracy! I love this one!!!]

...................In the city of Northampton, a unique model has been proposed, that of team ministry. The pastoral planning recommendation is that the city’s Catholics be served by one parish with a mission church. The team ministry approach is still in the very early stages, according to Msgr.Bonzagni. But, he said the approach, which would utilize two diocesan priests and a “team” of others, including pastoral ministers and possibly deacons, is exciting. “The unique part of this approach would be that this would be a team beyond just the priests,” Msgr. Bonzagni said.
The current Northampton clergy members have all said they would be willing to be reassigned outside of Northampton to allow this new approach to ministry for Catholics in the city to move forward. “It’s very generous and selfless of them to be willing to leave in favor of something new,” Msgr. Bonzagni said.
“The pastors feel that this would be a unique approach and one that had a chance to be successful in Northampton,” Msgr. Bonzagni said. “We’re trying to build on the strength of the Catholic Community of Northampton.”........................

[my comment: Here's why these statements smell bad:

# 1 there is no such thing in canon law as a "Catholic Community of (fill in the blank)". Bonzagni is making this one up! Believe! What we do have in the Catholic church are communities of people. They are called "parishes" and they have a right to exist!
# 2: To reach "beyond the priests" into the ranks of deacons and pastoral ministers is no stretch! how about reaching into the laity? but, there's a reason for where they are "reaching" to. Elliot St. controls every move that the deacons and pastoral assistants make just as much as they control the priests! This labored writing says "oh, ouch, my arm hurts, what a stretch!".

The reality is that the clerics have always been able to include the laity in governing the church. In fact, the laity DO govern most of the day-to-day work of the church, especially the women, and especially in parishes, but they have no recognition for this, and the hierarchy gives them no authority in decision-making. But, the gifts of parishioners are supposed to be recognized and promoted by the hierarchy, and in fact, (and believe me, they really don't want you to know this) THAT'S THEIR MAIN JOB! But when was the last time you saw a press release about that??!!

And this "team ministry" that's being peddled here is not it, either! This is supposedly "exciting", "unique" and a "team approach" to "move forward" and it is a nothing!!! Re-read this section of this press release posing as journalism and tell me where the coherence is! What the Sam Hill are they saying and how will it differ from what we already have????
"...the team ministry approach is still in the very early stages..."
This is a solution in search of a problem!

Bonzagni and the Bishop are trying to pass off this smoke 'n mirrors as progress and "new and improved!".

As if!!!

# 3, the final insult is to pretend that the priests of Northampton have a choice about their assignment! Come on! like suddenly, they have a union? Suddenly, the chancery wants to treat the priests as an integral part of the diocese, instead of being treated like grunts and utility players? EVERYONE KNOWS how the diocese operates, firing and hiring as they please, and punishing those who disagree with them! Let's be real! Like I said before, massive, massive, massive spin! whew! I'm really all spun out now!]

end Point/Counterpoint (ok, rant)

Why Bishop Paprocki Is Wrong

(Why The Bishops Are Wrong, Part VI)

Review: "As The Pendulum Swings From Charitable Immunity To Bankruptcy, Bringing It To Rest With Charitable Viability", an article adapted from an address before the National Diocesan Attorneys Association on April 27, 2008, by the Most Reverend Thomas J. Paprocki.

for our excerpts:
for the whole article:

When confronted by the fallout from sexual abuse, officials of the church sometimes suggest that it is the church which is being victimized. In this essay Paprocki (an archbishop in Chicago) takes the idea a step further: he identifies the church with a famous literary victim, i.e., the hapless protagonist of the "Pit and the Pendulum". It is only a matter of time, according to Paprocki, before the one strapped to the table (the church) is sliced to ribbons because of increased liability for abuse claims, unless a rescue operation is mounted. But, what can we do?

Paprocki has some ideas. His essay acknowledges that charitable immunity is on the way out and suggests what the strategy of the bishops will be on the day that the doctrine is banished forever.
"…Some of these devices to help preserve charitable viability are under our own control, such as forming parishes as separate not-for-profit corporations or express trusts in order for their structures to more closely reflect their status in canon law as separate juridic persons that are distinct from the diocese. Others may be pursued as legislation or may be decided by the courts themselves as a natural evolution of the doctrine of charitable immunity…"
These ideas are labeled "compassionate" by Paprocki, but their outstanding characteristic is how practical they are. They are a powerful wish list that any defense attorney would covet. If they were followed, charitable immunity would be broadened (albeit under different names), instead of continuing on its present course toward oblivion.

For these reasons his essay is particularly relevant to Massachusetts, which as we've seen is one of the few states offering statutory protection to charitable institutions, and which certainly affords the most generous protection because of the $20,000 cap on damages.

I might add that the fact that charitable immunity is passing away on the national stage, so easily accepted by Bishop Paprocki, is not even alluded to in the many statements of the MCC (Massachusetts Catholic Conference), who pontificate before the select joint committee as if nothing has changed in the world since 1971, when the statute took its present form under Governor Sargent.

In our excerpts Paprocki grounds his rationale for charitable immunity in humanitarian terms. We've heard this argument before. It's based on the idea that if churches are prevented from doing good deeds, then those good deeds must necessarily fall to the government, with attendant costs. Paprocki's argument has merit, but it's undercut by his assumptions.

He places great emphasis on honoring the intents of charitable donors, but never shows curiosity about how the donors feel about abuse awards. What if parishioners were polled about the use of the Sunday collection money? Would the results of such a poll support his contention that the damage awards are ill-spent? Or might it substantiate that awards are viewed as a just allocation of church resources? This question is missing in action, yet it goes to the heart of the issue.

Instead, Paprocki seems to have different concerns. He asks "how can we reduce the cost of abuse?" rather than "how can we reduce abuse?" or "how can the church best recover from the abuse scandal?"

Those looking for high-minded moral arguments in this paper will not find them – this is all about legal strategy and saving money. The question from his perspective seems to be: "Having enjoyed full protection from liability all these years, and having seen our defenses shredded, one by one, over the last decade or so, how can we secure new protections for the corporations of the respective dioceses?"

His main contention – that the church must stay solvent, at all costs, above all other concerns – is dubious. It's as if the argument of the financial corporations - "we're too big to fail" - is being rephrased: "we're too big-hearted to fail".

If that is true, then where are the bishops large-hearted concerns for victim's rights? Why is it that the church consistently needs to be backed into acknowledging these rights in a settlement just before a case is about to go to trial?

Paprocki provides no answers. He's too busy asserting that self-preservation of corporation sole is not only a right, but also a duty. Indeed, he presents it as a divine right, and a divine duty. That is a long way from the humanitarian ground that he started from.

He argues that the church is not only special because it is a charitable institution, but because its self-understanding is that it is the body of Christ. This institution must be understood "in keeping with the rights conferred by divine institution and canon law." The fact that civil law does not recognize canon law is not allowed to intrude.

Paprocki says throughout that civil law needs to reflect a "reasonable" balance, but this is not presented as a negotiable item. It's understood that the bishops will be the sole judge of what is "reasonable". The trump card is always the same – the divine institution of the church. That this is not a convincing (or even an allowable) argument in a court of law does not seem to arrest Paprocki's train of thought.

However, other Catholic thinkers have pondered the intersection of civil and religious rights, with different results. Some have found that there are well-defined limits to the exercise of religious freedom. One such was Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. In his 1967 commentary on the "Declaration on Religious Freedom", a Vatican II document) he wrote:
"The right to religious freedom is itself inalienable. Its exercise, however, is necessarily subject to limitation in particular cases. “Conduct,” said the Court in the Cantwell case, “remains subject to regulation for the protection of society.”……A leading definition, frequently cited, was given in the case of Watson vs. Jones in 1872: “In this country the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practice any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine, which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe personal rights, is conceded to all.” In Davis vs. Beason in 1890, the last of these limiting norms is again laid down, in the statement that action in the name of religion may claim protection only when it is “not injurious to the rights of others.”
Paprocki justifies his wish to expand charitable immunity by suggesting that the church now faces complete liability exposure, but it is far from complete, at least in Springfield, and I suspect in most other dioceses.

He consistently treats liability as a cause which needs to be met with new actions. But, is it not an effect of past irresponsibility, negligence, or criminality? Whatever the definition or however one feels about liability, Paprocki's approach is clear – if increased liability is the problem, then the church needs to find new ways to be less liable.

The possibility that the church has not become more liable, but only joined the rest of society, has not occurred to Paprocki. The church in any case has no free pass to be "injurious to the rights of others" (Murray) and for this reason its conduct is "subject to regulation for the protection of society" (Murray, again). These are far from punishments, as Paprocki suggests, but rather common sense guidelines - a change for the better.

Paprocki builds much of his case around a familiar scapegoat – the conditions of our free society. He claims that the times encourage frivolous lawsuits. To be sure, there are crackpot lawsuits, and he cites some beauts. In the original speech, he gives good examples of nutty awards, many of the scalding-hot-cup-of-coffee-in-lap variety, except that they tend to involve statues of the Virgin Mary.

For Paprocki, this proves that our "highly litigious culture" is a bad thing. But others have made a persuasive case that tort litigation has greatly aided the church, and the rest of society, by providing a mechanism for justice. See especially "Holding the Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse" by Timothy Lytton, Harvard University Press.

Ironically, the restoration of the teaching authority of the bishops, which everyone seems to want, would be achieved sooner if the bishops began facing up to their responsibilities in the abuse scandal, but Paprocki seems not to have thought of this. He seems determined to make the clock run backwards. One wonders how this wrong-headed argument ever got off the ground.

It makes more sense when we reflect that his extreme positions could be part of a teaching mission of a different sort. The occasion for this wish list about new protections was the annual convention of an association of diocesan lawyers. (The article based on the speech appeared some months later, in the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies, Vol. 48:1.)

The implications of what Paprocki means by protected "religious decisions" are made clearer and at exhaustive length by Rev. John Coughlin, in the paper that Paprocki quotes from. (John J. Coughlin, Canon Law and Constitutional Law: The First Amendment, Anthropology, Separation, and Neutrality 50–51 (Notre Dame Law Sch., Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-24, 2007)

The defense of the bishop's prerogatives has much to do with the hiring, firing and retention of priests. Coughlin goes so far as to say that a decision by a bishop that might result in a repeat offender offending once again - even that outcome - is essentially a by-product of a religious decision and as such deserves special protection under the Constitution of the United States.

Coughlin's definition of "religious decisions" to encompass employment retention is critical. It is impossible to square his broad defense of religious decision-making with civil law, because the state would never allow a pattern of employment decisions, even religious ones, if they are proven to be "injurious to the rights of others" (Murray).

This is such a basic concept of justice that it hardly seems questionable. Yet Paprocki and Coughlin are prepared to push the envelope that far. We seem to have arrived at a new stage of debate about what the Catholic church may or may not do in the pursuit of its aims.

Since Paprocki leans on Coughlin's paper so much, we will mention it in the next installment. His views about the sanctity and special nature of the bishops' employment decisions will not surprise students of church governance, but the starkness of his examples may.

Paprocki is right on one point – the church has been stripped of its protection against abuse liability relatively recently (in the big picture). It's also easy to agree that it is a traumatic occurrence. According to Paprocki, as long as sex abuse was viewed as a moral failing (prior to 1960), and even into the therapeutic era (1960-1990), the situation was tolerable. It was only after the "relatively unchecked exposure" to liability after 1990 or so that things started to go bad.

By 1987 or so, liability insurance for sex abuse and related crimes was basically unavailable, at least in the Springfield Diocese, and, I suspect, elsewhere. Here, there was no insurance before 1967 or so, apparently because it was not felt to be needed. So, we're talking about a relatively narrow framework where negligence was covered by insurance, roughly 1967 to 1986.

He cites sex abuse litigation as a major cause of the downfall of the doctrine of charitable immunity, but this is nonsense. We have just established, in his own writing, that the onset for abuse litigation was 1990. The demise of charitable immunity was well underway by 1949, and accelerated by decisions such as Abernathy (1969). It's clear that the litigation that Paprocki speaks of (1990 - present) had nothing to do with the fall of charitable immunity.

Paprocki's Wish List

Paprocki's list of the "considered, compassionate and constructive" way forward is all about money. This is a wish list. He would like the bishops to be allowed to define and control the amount of compensation for those harmed by the church. His main suggestions follow, with comments.

• Lobbying the state legislatures to enact legislation that limits tort recovery against a charitable organization to the extent of the organization’s annual aggregate liability insurance, but that also requires that the organization maintain a minimum level of insurance coverage.
[explicitly mentioned by MCC (Massacusetts Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the bishops). Maine considers that if an organization has liability insurance, they automatically waive the charitable immunity doctrine. This allows the plaintiff to recover damages from the insurance company up to the limits of the policy. It is a loophole.]

• Capping compensatory damages at predetermined levels, given that insurance may not be available.
[maintaining cap. This is what the current 85K cap of $20,000 in Massachusetts provides for.]

• Eliminating punitive damages in cases involving charitable institutions.
[in other words, expanding (not contracting) the reach of charitable immunity. The poster child for this concern is Vermont, where the diocese got steamrolled by two different jury awards for punitive damages in the millions.]

• Placing caps on attorneys’ fees when suing a charitable institution.
[a new cap is proposed.]

• Providing statutes of limitations that are consistent in their application and meaningful, rather than subject to questionable notions such as “recovered memory” and ambiguous terms such as when the harm is “discovered.”
[a slap in the face to victims. It is interesting that the bishops in Massachusetts go out of their way to praise the "discovery" rule – but that this bishop feels otherwise.]

• Requiring that the charitable institution have actual knowledge of a perpetrator’s previous wrongdoing in order to be liable for any subsequent harms.
[a high and unrealistic standard. Requires a jury trial level of certainty - but most allegations or suspicions remain unproven, even under the best circumstances. They are almost always "settled" without an admission of guilt. Paprocki asks for a standard to limit liability which is higher than the standard for settling cases.]

• Requiring that indemnification be provided in conjunction with government grants and contracts for the provision of social services.
[yet more insurance. The MCC would agree, on the principle that any insurance is good insurance. "Indemnification" is a loophole. This is vaguely worded, but it suggests that the sponsoring organization would provide a get-out-of-jail-free card to the providers of services…just in case.]

• Mandating conciliation or arbitration of claims.
[this would avoid finality and disclosure resulting from jury verdicts, and lower dollar amounts across the board – most settlements are far less costly than jury awards.]

• Providing that any damages that are awarded are actually used to help victims and prevent future harm, rather than intending punishment as the primary objective of awards....
[a different way of saying: "Eliminating punitive damages in cases involving charitable institutions."]