Can they do that?

Can they do that?

Lawyers are asking a judge to prevent a bishop from transferring ownership of diocesan property to the individual parishes. They claim the bishop is trying to protect assets from lawsuits. On the one hand, there are First Amendment issues over whether you can stop a religious leader from redistributing property designed for worship, although some would say that it is not integral to the worship functions of the religion. On the other hand, it seems like the bishops try to have it both ways.

When a bishop wants to close a parish or consolidate it, we’re told that even though the people of the parish raised the funds to build the church, they don’t actually own the building. The bishop holds the title in trust for all Catholics of the diocese. I happen to agree with that idea. However, in this case, it seems the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, is trying to say something different for the court.

    Greg Lynch, the attorney representing the Diocese of Baker, denied that the bishop was trying to protect assets from sexual abuse claims. Lynch said the bishop, in coming into compliance with church law, “had the plan (to transfer ownership of churches) before a single lawsuit was filed. There is no clandestine move to keep litigants from having access to funds if in fact they prevail on any or all of their claims.” 

    Lynch said Slader’s motion to stop the transfer of assets relies on the assertion that every Catholic in the diocese of Baker is liable. “By the same logic, every Boy Scout is liable for the behavior of a scout master,” Lynch said. “That is not what the law says.”

    “These assets are not being dissipated. They are simply going to their rightful and legal owner,” Lynch said.

I’m sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. I would prefer not to see churches sold off to pay for sex abuse claims either, and I would hope there would be a legal strategy to protect them, but the argument is still inconsistent. In any case, since the alleged victims are suing the diocese and the people in the parishes in union with their bishop are the diocese, the local Church, they are being sued anyway.

I think much of the media is missing the point and it’s due to clericalism. When you sue the Church, you’re not suing the bishops and priests, you are suing all of us. If the Church is liable, we’re all liable, you, me, and the guy next to you in the pew. Until we all get a better ecclesiology, we’re going to continue to have these problems.

Written by
Domenico Bettinelli