Editorial: What in Heaven are these people thinking?

from the Springfield Republican, Dec. 27, 2011:

Instead of turning to lawyers and courtrooms, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield and parishioners of Mater Dolorosa Church in Holyoke should consult the one authority that can settle their dispute over the church’s status – the Gospel. 

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court,” Jesus exhorts his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. 

“Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.” 

Those words have always been good advice, but we wonder if anyone is listening in this case. Both sides are expected to appear in Hampden Superior Court on Wednesday in the dispute over the church’s future. 

The diocese eliminated Mater Dolorosa and Holy Cross parishes June 30 due to declining enrollment and other issues and merged the two into Our Lady of the Cross parish, which worships at the former Holy Cross church. Since then, parishioners have appealed the decision to the Vatican and are maintaining a 24-hour vigil at Mater Dolorosa. 

The dispute grew worse last week when parishioners at Mater Dolorosa say the diocese “kidnapped” the infant Jesus and other creche figurines. Diocesan officials say the statuettes now belong to Our Lady of the Cross Parish and would be used for the enjoyment of former Mater Dolorosa parishioners who worship there. 

“Kidnapped” is an overstatement of what occurred, but regardless of the legal rights or wrongs, moving the statuettes was not wise. 

Simply put, it’s beneath the diocese’s dignity to engage in an activity that to many minds resembles a neigborhood spat. The Catholic Church is far, far bigger than this. 

Before more money and goodwill is expended in this dispute, we urge both sides to settle their differences. 

The closing and merger of churches is the proper business of the bishop and his advisers. These officials are not lying when they say they lack the staff and resources to keep every church in the diocese open. 

Meanwhile, the diocese should refrain from actions that reasonable people find vindictive. 

Will wisdom prevail? We can’t say, but as one Republican colleague quipped, it seems that the only wise men in this case are about four feet tall and made of plaster. The star they followed did not point to a courthouse.
My commentary:

The editorial urges that "both sides settle their differences". Perhaps the writers are not familiar with the mindset of the people living at the Elliot St. chancery. For them, the very idea of "sides" and "differences" within the church are anathema. In their reading of Catholicism, no differences are allowed. It simply does not matter that differences of opinion (the dialectic method, if you will) might lead to sharing ideas, re-thinking, creative dialog, and positive change.
I may be stretching a point, but that is essentially how the diocese appears to operate, in defiance of Vatican II, the wisdom of the larger church (which the editorialist rightly celebrates) and common sense.
However, I disagree that the closing and merger of churches is the proper business of the bishop and his advisors. Bishop McDonnell got himself into this pickle in the first place by relying on a closed loop within the corporation. And, it is not simply a question of "staff and resources", i.e., management.
On the contrary, the equality of laity and clergy demands that collaboration and deliberation take place before major structural changes—which parish closings certainly are—take place. The bishop cannot, under canon law, arbitrarily decide to open and shut parishes like so many ATM branches, even if those decisions are shared with trusted and long-time advisors. The reason is simple: parishes are owned by parishioners.
What is different about MD is that the usual stringing along, fog-machining and snow-jobbing that church officials employ failed. The MD parish council refused to roll over.
A side-benefit of Crèchegate is that, as night follows day, the usual unwise reaction immediately spilled forth from house dupa Mark Dupont. This provides sorely-needed insight into how the chancery operates.
 In the Republican article of Dec. 23 about the kidnapping of the baby Jesus, Jeff Kinney reports that Dupont defended the deed by stating that:
 “I think it would be an enormous mistake to discount the many more former Mater Dolorosa parishioners who, despite their own sadness at leaving their beloved church this year, have joined in the new parish, working with their fellow parishioners to create a successful Catholic community for future generations,” Dupont said. “Why shouldn’t those folks, who can make the very same claims as the occupiers as to past membership and support, be allowed to enjoy this manger for their Christmas celebration as one reminder of their former parish and church, and past Christmases there?” 
I think people underestimate the value that Mark Dupont provides. He is a faithful mirror of diocesan intentions. His words, if you take the time to read them carefully, expose how Bishop McDonnell thinks and what the stakes are in this seemingly petty dispute about 4-feet high plaster figurines. 
It doesn't matter to Mr. Dupont that Advent started on Dec. 1 and that Fr. Alex waited until Dec. 21, a few days before Christmas, to decide that the new parish needed the creche, and to yank the creche out. It doesn't matter that Fr. Alex did not try to talk to the parishioners before the yanking. It doesn't matter that another creche could have easily been found. And especially, it doesn't matter that the creche was ALREADY IN USE. 

The messages are: 1.) the parishioners within the church are not to be compared to the parishioners who have moved on to Holy Cross. 2.) the parishioners within the church are dirt, because they don't hang on every word of Bishop McDonnell, and 3.) the parishioners who have moved on to Holy Cross should therefore be celebrated, and elevated, because they do hang on every word of Bishop McDonnell. It could not be clearer. 

This good/bad dichotomy, this up/down thinking, this fear/love extremism is at the heart of how the chancery operates. They show no mercy for those on the "other side" of what they want. It is all about power. And, bear in mind, this treatment is dished out to those who are fellow Catholics, and undeniably part of the People of God. Is it any wonder that many Americans continue to accuse the officials of the Roman Catholic Church of intolerance, and suspect their motives? 

If this were the Middle East, those responsible for this despicable point of view within Elliot St. would be called the Taliban. We have not yet found a word to describe them here in the Springfield Diocese...but I'm working on it.

update: Bishop v. Mater Dolorsa

Bishop v. Dolorosa Members
Wed., January 4, 2012; 2 P.M.
Hampden  County Superior Court
(Hall of Justice)
50 State Street (2nd or 3rd floor)
Springfield, Mass.

Absolutely Elliot St.

UPDATE: please note correction: the day of the prayer service is Friday, Dec. 23.

There are two critical events happening this week, one sponsored by the ostensibly absolute rulers on Elliot St., and one by the community of the People of God at Mater Dolorosa, 71 Maple St., Holyoke. It's hard to decide which is more important.
 On Dec. 23, Friday night at 6:30 p.m., there will be a prayer service at Mater Dolorosa, with organist Jeff Chirgwin. Special features are traditional Oplatek Polish blessings, Polish and English Christmas carols, and nonperishable food items collected for Kate's Kitchen. The event is  organized by passionate supporters of the church, who seek prayer and support in their struggle to keep the doors of the church open.
Pretty much the opposite will be happening on Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 2:00 in the afternoon. Diocesan law firm Egan, Flanagan & Cohen, P.C., will be representing the Bishop in an equally enthusiastic attempt to throw the parishioners out via motion for summary judgement for trespass. The hearing will take place at Hampden County Superior Court (Hall of Justice), at 2:00 on the 2nd or 3rd floor of 50 State St., Springfield.
If it's true that lay participation in governance and clerical enforcement of the status quo are at opposite ends of the spectrum, we need to ask: how did we get here? 
How did the People of God, a small cluster of fisherman, tax collectors, prostitutes, and generally, the unwashed, (albeit with a few well-off widows thrown in), led by a visionary carpenter's son, evolve into a corporation that willingly and even eagerly uses all of the tools of political discourse to enforce their will on those not of our faith; who are willing to wield civil law like a hammer, and not just against supposed "enemies" such as the media, abuse victims, bike path advocates and historical commissions, but also, almost unbelievably, against their own people, the ones who give the widow's mite (giving from their necessity, not from their excess), and who give freely, generously, unendingly, so that the corporation has the necessary funds with which to prosecute them in court?
Big question, but we must not be afraid to tackle it. 
In the big picture it would seem that the centuries-old doctrine that the Catholic church is the one true church, bar none, to the exclusion and even the damnation of others, and the resulting emphasis on an "absolute" point of view (though overturned by changes in theology around the middle of the 20th century) exerts a powerful undertow. Much as they would deny it, many of the current hierarchy (and not a few lay people) still think of Catholicism as the one true religion and others as off-brands, and even disreputable. It is an article of faith for these believers that other religions must be judged unreasonable, as well as incompatible, simply because they are not Catholic. They have no standing, and never will. 
But, don't the claims of the world's other religions, which are strikingly similar in their moral make-up, practices and outlook, overlap with ours in any significant way? Nope, the die-harders would say. "Of course," they would say, "we have to play nice with others, and we do, but only as an accommodation, not because it is the ideal. In an ideal world, everyone would be Catholic. Because truth and Catholicism are one and the same." 
Now, how much of a leap is it to apply this same thinking of "The One Way" to the strategies and political programs dominating Elliot St.? Has it not been repeatedly pointed out by McDonnell, Dupont, Pomerleau, and Egan (with LaBroad, Liston and others in the background) how much better it would be if the misled and uninformed parishioners at Mater Dolorosa (and at St. Stan's, and at dozens of other protesting parishes) just did what they were told to do in the first place? In short, if they simply obeyed?
This rigid stance of the One True Whatever has the advantage of appearing impeccable to its adherents. It also offers simplicity in a complex world — a world of give and take, of shortfalls in time, money, and in the resultant need for dialog and even compromise. But dialog and compromise are defeats, for the true believer, because they are less than the Ultimate Good. The transcendent worth of the unfixed position can easily blind the adherents to less noble impulses — such as the lust for power. Belief in the One True Whatever easily justifies an entire system of control, persuasion, and rhetoric — and, failing that, legal action. Don't think for one moment that Bishop McDonnell deplores legal action. It's just one more tool in his kit. Having said that, he would rather persuade, and to this end, pastors in pulpits are good at working chancery positions into their sermons. These attacks are deployed on anything that stands in the way of what the adherents believe the absolute truth demands. 
There are many issues that illustrate how this absolutism affects the Springfield Diocese, but one of the most egregious is the legal memorandum that John Egan and Co. filed on Oct. 11. This was reported several weeks later by Fr. Bill Pomerleau on the diocesan web site:
"Egan’s lawsuit is pressing the court to rule on the underlying issue of the church occupation: whether the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield (RC) has a right to dispose of its property as it sees fit..........Egan’s memorandum of law accompanying his motion states that in Massachusetts, Catholic dioceses are recognized civilly as corporations sole controlled by the incumbent bishop."
In the first place, here's a fact check: NO property in the Diocese belongs to the RCB, to Bishop McDonnell personally, or to anyone other than the people of the Diocese. Pomerleau knows this, but apparently he's forgotten. The notion that the Massachusetts dioceses are "corporations sole controlled by the incumbent bishop" is equally false. The reverse is true. Corporation sole was created in 1897 for an entirely different purpose, as we shall see. Again, Pomerleau should know this, not only as a priest, but as an aspiring journalist.
What is truly different about the last few months is that when the word came down from Rome about what should be done with St. Stan's, St. George's and St. Patrick (find a use for them), this was promptly vetoed by Bishop McDonnell. One could almost hear the conversation on Elliot St.: "who do these people in Rome think they are?"  As was observed by Peter Borre, in remarks to the Associated Press:
 "What is new is the die-hard attitude of the diocese of Springfield -- signaling that they will continue their illogical policy of passive resistance, because the Vatican `does not require that these church buildings be reopened,'" Borre said in an emailed statement. "What is the logic of Catholic churches that are locked and CLOSED to Catholic worship?"
No one from Elliot St. has answered this question.
Back to Pomerleau: when he says that Bishop McDonnell should be able to dispose of his property as he seems fit, and that he "controls" the Diocese, he opens the door to a host of counter-arguments. Some are civil, some canonical.

Based on the groundswell of recorded opposition to the parish-killing programs of the Diocese, it is easy to find evidence that the process was flawed, and that these flaws affect the validity of the suggestions made by the Pastoral Planning committee to McDonnell. This is because these suggestions cannot represent in any reasoned and representative way the will of the laity. In fact if you take the trouble to read the final document of Pastoral Planning, it reads from start to finish like an elaborate evasion. There are no minutes; no historical progression; no discussions; no names; and no guts. It is a conclusory document which reads like it was spun from thin air by one man on a word-processor in an office cubicle, and for all we know, it was.
Without a willing collaboration of the laity, the decisions of the Bishop fail as a matter of canon law. This is because Bishop McDonnell is an administrator, and not just a "decider" as Pomerleau and others would have it.
Pomerleau is also wrong on the civil side. Corporation sole does not mean that assets are "controlled" by the bishop. On the contrary, the law creating corporation sole makes it clear that it is the Catholic people, not the bishop, that are the beneficiaries of the property and other assets of the church (most especially, their own monetary contributions, which they have a right to confirm were used for the right reasons). The bishop is the trustee, and the Catholic people are the beneficiaries. It's not complicated.

Corporation sole also gave the Commonwealth power to examine the books of the Catholic church on an annual basis to be sure they're in order, and it also made the diocese subject to all limitations of any other corporation within the Commonwealth. Thus, far from giving the Diocese a legal license to find and punish people and entities that disagree with an absolute drive for power, corporation sole was created for an entirely different purpose: to give the Catholic people and the citizens of the Commonwealth reasonable methods of examining and regulating the activities of the officials of the Catholic church.
In the new year we will examine three significant newspaper articles about the creation of corporate sole dating from around 1898 or so. Contemporary quotes from legislators, both advocates and foes of the idea of corporate sole (and, why it was felt necessary in the first place) provide some much-needed context. These help explain the misstatements of Pomerleau and Egan, though they do not excuse them.
My Christmas wish is that as many Catholic people as possible attend both the court hearing on Dec. 28 and the prayer service on Dec. 23. They are worthy of our attention.

Giving Witness: Warm Hearts in a Cold Church

The welcome hustle and bustle of the Xmas season is upon us (and the unthinking frenzy that often accompanies it), but we must not forget the many lawsuits that Bishop McDonnell has initiated, which continue to drag their way through secular courts like so many ghosts of Marley burdened with hard steel chains. 
The wise decision of Judge Ponsor to allow preservation of Our Lady of Hope Church continues to be appealed by Egan and Co., who apparently would like nothing better than to knock it flat. The "Satan on a Schwinn" controversy continues in Northampton. And most importantly, a response is due from the so-called trespassers at Mater Dolorosa to the over 100-count lawsuit filed against them.

 The faithful parishioners of Mater Dolorosa are up against it. It doesn't help that church officials cut off the heat and have been harassing the vigilers in the sanctity of their spiritual home over made-up "concerns" about extension cords and circuit breakers that never troubled them back when Fr. Alex put them in. 

As the temperature plummets, we must never forget our brothers and sisters who are giving witness in cold churches tonight, INCLUDING ST. STAN'S IN ADAMS, and every night—in fact, 24/7..... 

Remember the gospel for tuesday:

R. (7a) The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
and your faces may not blush with shame.
When the poor one called out, the LORD heard,
and from all his distress he saved him.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

god bless them.

Father Jane Doe?

Following the commentary about the "ministerial exception" being debated at SCOTUS.
One of the arguments making the rounds is that Hosanna-Tabor cannot be decided in favor of the teacher's right to sue her church for retaliatory firing because, down the road, this would affect the right of the Catholic church to ordain only males. This is absurd. 
Nonetheless, it has been widely reported. The best explanation I've seen for why this notion is false is given by Leslie Griffin:

"...Let me be clear. No one argues that the courts can force the Catholic Church to ordain women. That argument is a red herring. In the forty years that the ministerial exception has existed, I count only one court case of a Catholic woman who (unsuccessfully) sued to become a priest, but at least ten cases of Catholic women who knew with absolute certainty they were not priests. Yet those women were suddenly ordained ministers when they went to court to enforce their employment contracts against Catholic employers...". .........for more, go here
I was glad to read her comments about why the priesthood will not be impacted, no matter how this case is decided. Not only do they make perfect sense, but they also introduced me to the Weishuhn case.
After you examine Weishuhn v. Catholic Diocese of Lansing, Case No. 10-760 (another school teacher, also in Michigan), which is also being considered for review by the high court, you begin to understand what is really at stake. It is not doctrinal tradition, spiritual exercise, or belief, but simply: how far does church autonomy extend?  Is it right to disregard employment discrimination because the employer is a religious organization? We must remember that even in their own brief in Hosanna-Tabor, the Lutheran church admitted that firing Perich was retaliatory. Still, they want to get away with it.
Be that as it may, even assuming that religious institutions should get a pass on employment claims, should they also be immunized against suspect and even criminal behavior? Incredible as it may seem, this is the terrain of the lesser-known Weishuhn case.
The writ of certiorari is an eye-opener. Cumulatively, the arguments make you wonder why the court is bothering with Hosanna-Tabor; Weishuhn appears to be more cleanly stated.
check it out:
1. Whether the ministerial exception grounded in
the First Amendment should be so broadly defined as
to bar employees of religious institutions, such as
teachers of secular and religious classes, from
asserting a state civil rights claim where the
employment action does not involve selection of
employees or an examination of church doctrine?

2. Whether an employee of a religious institution
who is found to be a ministerial employee should be
barred from bringing a state whistleblowers’ action
when the employee was discharged for reporting
suspected violations of state law which the employee
was required to report?
The case shows to what spectacularly misguided use the "ministerial exception" can be put when placed in the wrong hands. In this case, the hands of the Most Reverend Earl Boyea, bishop of the Lansing Diocese, who is arguing, in essence, that when a mandated reporter (a school teacher), acting in good conscience and according to civil law, reports allegations of abuse, and is fired, that the teacher has no claim against her employer. Why? Because the teacher is a minister, and the employer is a church.
But wait, you say, females, whether teachers or not, cannot be ministers in the Roman Catholic church. True, Boyea would say. However, supposedly, Weishuhn's conduct in reporting, and the church's conduct in firing her, are both covered under the "ministerial exception" and cannot be examined by civil courts. It doesn't take a constitutional lawyer to know that's a bogus argument.

Even more egregiously, the Florida Supreme Court refused to intervene when a principal was fired after making allegations of personal sexual assault against a Catholic priest........her claim went nowhere, as a direct result of the "ministerial exception."
I wish I were making this stuff up.



Once again we enter the season of waiting. It may be a coincidence, but the gospel of yesterday morning was similar in tone - Christ told a story about keeping faith. He compared our duty for faith (or, "watchfulness") to the duty of household dependents left behind by a master who went on a trip. Christ pointed out that those people should keep the household in order  because "you don't know the day nor the time" of the return, in so many words.

While surely we should take this lesson to heart for our personal salvation, it is not wrong to apply the lesson of faithfulness to the places where we worship, and to the household of the Springfield Diocese.

Nowhere locally is this fine tradition and duty to wait in hope more evident than in the daily lives of the parishioners of St. Stan's and Mater Dolorosa, who refuse to give up on their faith traditions, and who continue to hold out hope for a change of heart in church officials. We ask, WHEN will church officials begin putting our household back in order by reaching out to those conducting vigils?

Let us reflect on three things: the problem, the situation, and the solution.

the problem: It is clear that local Catholic laity are going to church less, donating less in the offertory, leaving fewer legacies by will and trust, and volunteering less. Increasingly, they join the large group of Roamin' Catholics who attend church twice a year: at Easter, and Christmas. It is equally clear that a lot of this lack of commitment and trust is related to the handling of the sexual abuse crisis in the Diocese. This has caused not only a large financial drain, but, more importantly, a trust drain. Diocesan officials can continue to plead ignorance about the supposedly "under-the-radar" bad actor priests, rather than admit supervisory negligence, but, the problem remains that no one, including insurance lawyers, judges, police, victims, media, and laity, believes this.

the situation: this leaves the clergy with an insurmountable credibility gap in that particular area. At the same time, life goes on, and the Catholic laity, while losing trust in parts of the structure, retain faith in the most important truth, namely, the mission of Jesus Christ to bring salvation to all people, for all time. Even though chancery officials have hurt and continue to hurt the most faithful and committed with an ill-advised parish-wrecking program, many segments of the faithful are on the sidelines, still have Catholicism in their DNA, would like to come back, and are watching and waiting.

the solution: the officials of the Diocese have a golden opportunity to re-capture their prime supporters by settling with the people of St. Stan's and Mater Dolorosa, who continue to hunker down and pray in the churches they were raised in. They can do this by opening a genuine discussion, with everything on the table. This may lead to partial re-openings, and respectful agreements that will bring the faithful back to supporting the Roman Catholic church, and reduce opposition to the mergers. 

one last question: is this hope in vain, and must there continue to be disruption, lack of trust, and obstinacy in the household? Or, can the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield adapt to changing times and thinking Catholics?


"Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her."

The Sunday mass readings for Nov. 6 were largely about wisdom. It gives an occasion to reflect on Bishop McDonnell's wisdom in trying to shut down Mater Dolorosa parish by claiming the steeple was unsafe. This may seem an issue upon which reasonable people can disagree. After all, some of the engineers quoted in news accounts are convinced the steeple is in lousy shape, while others are not so sure. Central to the credibility of the decree is whether or not the Building Inspector of Holyoke ever received a copy of engineering reports from the Diocese, and whether or not he made the statements attributed to him in the decree. Those issues are addressed in a report from the media reprinted here.

But, the more important issues go back a longer way.

I like to think that the protest lodged with the Vatican back in the fall of 2006 over the closing of a small church in South Lee has something to do with Steeplegate. At that time, the universal attitude of contented Catholics was: "don't question parish closings, it's useless."  However, one of the church members, Brody Hale, disagreed with this gloomy assessment. Partially, this is because over the summer he had visited and been inspired by several of the half-dozen or so parishes in the Boston area that protested their closings. His conclusion was that as bad as Catholic church decision-making had seemed in recent years, it was not yet hopeless for disenfranchised parishioners to pursue justice. Additionally, his own faith demanded it. 

Brody and I filed a complaint about how the church was closed, and although we didn't win, the parishioners of St. Francis Church were at least recognized by the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington and the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican as parties "with standing." We had the satisfaction of seeing our Recourse, which detailed the lack of wisdom displayed by McDonnell, count by count, made part of the permanent record at the Vatican. This, I felt at the time, was significant. It was a proof, however small, of fairness within the system.

Fast forward now to the parish-closing program of Bishop McDonnell, generally known as Pastoral Planning. Very early in the process of losing some 69 or so churches it became apparent that there was discontent among the laity about the so-called "listening sessions," and about whether parishes were fairly represented, even if many agreed that some closings were necessary.

The response of Bishop McDonnell was interesting. Instead of opening up the decision-making, he closed it down. Instead of greater transparency, he enforced greater secrecy. In fact, the financial reports of the Diocese, never very forthcoming to begin with, lost detail each year, and then stopped altogether. This 2 1/2 year period of non-disclosure coincided with the height of the church-closing frenzy.

At the same time, If you look at the language of the closing decrees, you see an escalation. This can be traced very concretely to two historic phases: during the first, the Vatican upheld local Bishops' decisions almost unilaterally. In the second phase, even the Vatican began to push back, questioning if there was not some use that could be made of the churches, as long as there were parishioners still interested in keeping them. The two phases can be seen in the Bishop's decree for Mater Dolorosa reprinted here: Canon 515.2 refers to the simple closing or merger of the parish, and Canon 1222.2 refers to the question of what to do with the church building (whether it stays a church, or is given over to other uses, which must be profane but not sordid). It is the implementation of the second Canon that was suddenly being contested, and overturned, by the Vatican.

However, it soon became clear that if a Bishop could reasonably claim a "grave cause" to close the church (and not just his own opinion) he stood a much greater chance of having Canon 1222.2 stick. The way this played out in practice in the U. S. was that, in one instance, parishioners came to church, heard mass, and went home, and when they came to church the next day they found a "closed for structural repairs" sign stuck on the door, with no advance warning or apparent cause whatsoever. A crazy story, but an accurate one, nonetheless. 

This helps to explain why Bishop McDonnell's decrees became longer and longer, why his reasoning became increasingly "creative," and why "grave cause" is a key phrase in the latest ones. His decrees insist on many things: on the fairness of the Pastoral Planning system; on the weight of the professional, economic and academic studies that were done which resulted in the closings; and on the supposedly complete accord that the priests and people of the diocese have with the Bishop over the necessity of doing things the Bishop's way. Meanwhile, as previously stated, the Vatican overruled several bishops about church closings, including Bishop McDonnell, and ordered parishes re-opened. 

Again, the response of McDonnell was interesting. Did he obey? Nope. Did he re-open St. Stan's in Adams, or St. Patrick's  in Chicopee?  Nope. Instead, he filed appeals. While this is his right, it does make you wonder who the ultimate authority in church government really is.  Is it the Pope? The clergy, generally? The people? The Bishop? Much hangs on the answer, and it is far from clear.

For the rest of this post, I will simply record two things: the language used by Bishop McDonnell in his closing decree for Mater Dolorosa (which has since vanished from the Diocesan web site), and the affidavit of the Holyoke building inspector in response. And don't forget, according to the recent readings:

"Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her."


Diocese of Springfield
Springfield, Massachusetts


Inasmuch as the Diocese of Springfield has undertaken a lengthy pastoral planning process to endure fair and equitable access to the sacraments for all Catholics in Western Massachusetts, and 

Inasmuch as a professional and pastoral evaluation of each church community which included listening sessions with clergy and parish representatives in each of the ten regions of the diocese has been undertaken, and

Inasmuch as the pastoral planning process for the Diocese of Springfield has indicated the need for the reconfiguration of parishes, and in particular instances the reduction in the number of parishes for  particular region, and 

Inasmuch as the clergy and representatives of the parishes below noted have participated in the consultative process structured by the Pastoral Planning Committee, which has resulted in recommending the canonical action herein indicated, and 


 - An independent third-party engineer's report dated March 14, 2011 of the bell tower of Mater Dolorosa Church states that "it is only a matter of time before there is either a partial or complete failure of the wood framed steeple structure." (Supplement A to the Structural Conditions Assessment Report of the Mater Dolorosa Parish Church prepared by Engineering Design Associates, Inc., March 14, 2011, page 7.) This report is incorporated into the minutes of the Presbyteral Council by reference.

- The Assessment also states that "even a partial collapse [of the steeple] would not only jeopardize the occupants and their immediate surroundings, but could possible cause a "domino" effect threatening a much larger area of the church." (Ibid.)

- The Building Inspector for the City of Holyoke, after his own inspection and having read the Assessment, is in agreement with the Assessment and the danger to both occupants and passersby and directed that the steeple be taken down before next autumn at the latest, because of the high winds associated with that time of year.

- The Building Inspector has ordered an immediate effort to secure slates on the roof that appear to him to be dangerously loose.

- The Building Inspector has also ordered that while the roofer is on the roof he evaluate the condition of the roof and immediately make whatever repairs are called for to prevent falling slate tiles.

- The Parish of Mater Dolorosa has a current debt to the diocese of some $716,000, and is not financially able to pay for the repairs to the steeple nor is it able to cover other expenses such as repairing/replacing slate roof tiles.

- As a matter of public safety both the parking lot and the sidewalk need to be repaired representing additional costs that also cannot be covered by the parish.

- The Pastoral Planning Committee Report calls for the merging of Mater Dolorosa Parish with Holy Cross Parish (Report and Recommendations of the Pastoral Planning Committee, page 34), due to demographic and financial matters as well as that of deployment of available clergy.

- Both pastors have been working assiduously since 2009 to effect a smooth transition in line with the Pastoral Planning Committee's recommendation published in August of 2009 calling for the merger of the two parishes in the fall of this year (Ibid.), the sum of which, in my judgment, amounts to grave cause, and 

Having listened to the advice of the Presbyteral Council on April 5, 2011, and

Having heard the pastors of Mater Dolorosa and Holy Cross Parishes who are in agreement with this action, and 

Having determined that the good of souls will not suffer harm as a consequence of this action, and 

Having previously merged the Parishes of Mater Dolorosa and Holy Cross by decree of April 7, 2011 in conformity with Canon 515.2 which becomes effective on July 1, 2011;

I now, by this decree, in keeping with Canon 1222.2, and for the grave cause shown above, herby close the Church of Mater Dolorosa to worship and relegate it hereby to profane but not sordid use effective July 1, 2011.

Given in Springfield this seventh day of April, 2011

(signed) Most Reverend Timothy A. McDonnell, Bishop  of Springfield



I, Paul Healy, on oath, depose and say that:

1. I am Paul Healy presently employed as a building commissioner in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

2. During the first part of 2011, I served as  Building Commissioner (Inspector) for the City of Holyoke, Massachusetts.

3. During my time of employment during early 2011, I was called to the Mater Dolorosa Church at the corner of Lyman and Maple Street to talk about the steeple of the church. I met a person who said he was an engineer outside the church together with a maintenance person of the church. To the best of my recollection, I was the only Holyoke Building Inspector called to the site. We stood on the outside sidewalk facing the church structure as we spoke.

4. The main person said he was from an engineering firm, and claimed that the steeple had issues, and he was to do a more thorough inspection later and give me a written report. I listened to him, but I never received a written report regarding the steeple from him at a later date as promised;  I saw no damage to the steeple as I did not examine or inspect the premises. I am not an engineer or expert on steeples, and gave no opinion on safety or structural integrity of the steeple.

5. Again, to the best of my recollection, while standing on the sidewalk, the man who claimed to be an engineer said he was making a list and he would send me a copy of his report. No report ever came to me.

6. Any statement reading that, “The building Inspector for the City of Holyoke, after his own inspection and having read the Assessment is in agreement with the Assessment and the danger to both occupants and passerby and directed that the steeple be taken down before next autumn at the latest because of the high winds associated with that time of year,” is not true and no order, oral or written by me, to that effect was ever made.

7. Any person claiming that I made statements, in my official capacity as a Holyoke Building Inspector, regarding the safety or structural integrity of the Mater Dolorosa Steeple is not telling the truth. I  responded and told the engineer that if there were immediate danger such as loose bricks or slate that they should remove those right away. This was my only interaction with the steeple issue at the church.

8. I make the foregoing statements voluntarily and without monetary or other inducement to do so; I simply want to set the public record straight as to my involvement regarding the issue of the Mater Dolorosa Steeple as I understand statements have been made by others contrary to my factual involvement regarding the aforesaid steeple.


Addendum: We here at the Western Massachusetts blog would like to add a couple footnotes: this affidavit has been entered into evidence in the court cases (civil) ongoing at in Hampden Superior Court; and, according to our sources, as of this date (November 6, 2011), there continues to be no record of any report whatsoever coming from the above-referenced diocesan-hired engineering firm nor from the diocese itself about the condition of the steeple to any of the departments of the City of Holyoke despite monitoring of the email and other communication systems of the City. We will keep you informed.

Egan, Pomerleau, McDonnell and Why the "Ministerial Exception" Matters

Many of you know that a significant case about church/state relations (the retaliatory dismissal of a Lutheran lay teacher) is under consideration by the Supreme Count. A verdict is not expected anytime soon. Nevertheless, the so-called "ministerial exception" at the heart of the case is important. It's never been ruled on by the high court, though lower courts, especially appeal courts, have built a small mountain of citations and case law around it.

We start by asking "what is the relevance of this mega-case to everyday life in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts?" It's relevant because it directly implicates the so-called "church autonomy" doctrine. Under this rule of law (or, lawlessness, take your pick) local bishops and other church officials gain a pass from the neutral laws which bind the rest of us. Child abuse, sexual harassment of seminarians, and arbitrary dismissals are just a few of the outrages that have been defended under the ministerial exception. 

The "rights" of our bishops to make decisions about employing dozens of troubled clergy (or, former troubled clergy such as Mr. Richard Lavigne) have also been defended by our lawyer, Mr. John Egan, under this doctrine, particularly in his citations of Gibson v. Brewer (Missouri). But, Egan did this years ago, and in any case most parishioners are unaware of Gibson v. Brewer, and how it relates to anything. 

The difficulties that Bishop McDonnell is encountering at Mater Dolorosa are the flip side: these issues are in-your-face, ripped from the headlines, and vital. But, their greatest importance may be that they point toward a solution to the malaise that grips the Diocese. The fact that an objective observer (Judge Kinder) simply does not believe Bishop McDonnell's story is highly significant. It reminds us of the common-sense limitations that could and should be placed on a bishop's power. It could be a blueprint for a fresher, more authentic vision of what the Catholic church can yet become. 

And, a change in focus is desperately needed. The viability of the Diocese continues to crumble away in several areas: in communication, in finances, in the assertion of moral authority, and in how chancery officials conceive, carry out and enforce parish closings. These are inter-related, and bear some examination.

In the first place, the Diocese of Springfield has been under a cloud for such a long time that we tend to forget the significance of what happened in February, 2004. From the moment that Dupre fled, leaving Mark Dupont with nothing but a half-cocked, easily disproved tale about "health problems" to report, the gloom in the chancery has been pervasive, and the posture defensive. When church officials were not defending themselves in court, they were dreaming up more and more creative justifications for initiating suits against others. But, it's not only the pit bull legal tactics of Egan, Flanagan and Cohen that disgrace the parishioners of the Diocese. The communications component has a lot to answer for as well.

From 2004-2010, the usual grade-school level of the Catholic Observer went into hyperdrive when they reported about abuse in general or about the Diocesan role in abuse in particular. The Observer has since been subsumed into the Catholic Mirror, a glossy and relentlessly cheerful robo-magazine which seems unlikely to run nasty editorials against the Voice of the Faithful, SNAP and other forward-thinking groups, more is the pity. Say what you will about the Observer, but at least you knew where it stood — in the gutter. See here, and here.

In this period, the bylined articles of Fr. Bill Pomerleau stood out. He showed such remarkable bias and reckless disregard for the truth that he distinguished himself in a most unfavorable way. Pomerleau used his position at the Observer to mount an attack on the deposition of Maurice E. DeMontigny, which revealed complacency and corruption within the chancery. Nor did Pomerleau hesitate to smear Fr. James Scahill, daring to suggest that Scahill did not do all he should have to prevent the sexual abuse of children. Let us pause here and remember that Fr. Scahill was awarded the Priest of Integrity Award from the national VOTF in 2004.

For the record, on April 23, 2010, Pomerleau implied on pg. 8 in the Observer that Scahill is blameworthy for not reporting arch-predator Lavigne's activities sooner, though Pomerleau knows full well that Scahill was the only one who spoke out, and that all other clergy in the diocese, including the bishops, and including Fr. Bill Pomerleau, were silent about the matter. That particular article was character assassination of the first order.

The headlines over his stories about the 8.5 million dollar insurance settlement (always taking the side of the Diocese without regard to where the truth lay, thus abandoning journalistic ethics) were so slanted that they seemed almost a parody of real newspaper reporting — like a Catholic version of the Onion. It can be no accident that the publisher of the Observer is none other than Bishop McDonnell. Is it not clear that the concentration of judicial, legislative and executive functions (and throw in publishing, too) are another large clue to the problems of the church?

This is all a part of the public record and easy to look up, though most won't. But, what makes it especially important is that this cloud has not lifted. It has spread like a cancer from the chancery to the Diocese at large. So-called pastoral planning is not the only evidence of the sickness, but it is one of the most visible, and has enraged the most people.

All the while, Pomerleau continues to churn out slanted copy, but now as a liaison to the various Bishop-approved Catholic news services that connect the globe. His latest effort claimed that the MD parishioners had "heckled" the Bishop during the closing Mass, a rash overstatement if not an outright lie. It is so much like the remarks made by Mark Dupont the day after the Bishop's closing Mass at St. Stan's in Adams in 2008. On that occasion, Dupont claimed that parishioners had shouted down the celebrant, Fr. Boyle. On the contrary, as an eye witness, I can attest that it was Fr. Boyle who put on the most belligerent and disrespectful display toward the congregation that I have seen in a lifetime of church-going.

And so, yesterday or today, the cloud, and the excuses, and the defenses, and the spinning all continue, often predictable, never abating, while the Bishop's moral authority continues to crumble away.

On the legal front, Egan, Flanagan and Cohen have not finished fighting the many enemies of the chancery. Indeed, they have made an art form of the mean and vindictive suit. Consider that the counts against the MD congregation for daring to stand up to the Bishop's will amount to no less than 102 counts. 

One Hundred And Two Counts!

This is law as weapon. It is not enough to win, but Jack Egan and cohorts must also humiliate people. The message to parishioners is not just "why are you taking on the Bishop?" but "HOW DARE you take on the Bishop?"

The lawsuits against the City of Springfield (Our Lady of Hope), the City of Northampton (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton), and the Diocese's own insurance companies (the 8.5 million abuse settlement) are different only in the details. They all seem mean-spirited, arrogant and full of self-righteous rage. Significantly, they are all authorized from the chancery, with no meaningful lay input. 

Now that Bishop McDonnell's preliminary injunction has been shot down, he's between a rock and a hard place. He's announced through Dupont that he will pursue a speedy court trial. But, a trial offers little hope. Can you imagine parishioner witnesses parading through the courtroom to testify how flawed and unfair the pastoral planning process has been? Can you imagine how likely it is that the discovery and the testimony will prove beyond a reasonable doubt how the MD parishioners, like so many others, were lied to? How the trial will inevitably lead (for the first time ever) to a close examination of the financial records of the Diocese?  

I can imagine all these things, but I cannot imagine the Bishop being pleased with any of them. On the other hand, having brought the civil suit in the first place, how can he sue for peace without losing face? Or, will it be yet another settlement for Egan, Flanagan, and Cohen, with more spin to follow?

Is there any way out of this deplorable situation?

I think, in their own way, the parishioners of MD have pointed the way. It is simply this: stand up for your rights, get them, and carry on. It is common sense that no man, even a bishop, gets all he wants. It is common sense that no church, even the Catholic church, is entitled to deference from civil law that allows for a Taliban-like merging of canonical and civil law, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse, but also, when it comes to the property rights, the rights to be free from discrimination, and the civil rights of all people. Perhaps most importantly, this fairness should extend to equal rights within the Body of Christ, between clergy and lay people. It is incredible that this is even in doubt, and it may not be, in other dioceses, where the sun is shining. But, this diocese is not like other dioceses. 

Civil law should not be a club for the Bishop to wield and the state courts should not be a refuge for the Bishop where he can run and hide when he does not get his way and cannot prevail among his own people with sound moral arguments. 

These are the lessons of the MD occupation and emergency injunction decision (some of them anyway) and these lessons may yet be reinforced by the judges of the Supreme Court in a ruling with much broader application.