Parish appeals unlikely to succeed, says canon law expert

In the wake of the announcement of parish suppressions on May 25, parishioners and even some priests — have vowed to appeal the decision of the archbishop to close their parishes. However, Father Mark O’Connell, a Canon Law expert for the archdiocese, says such efforts are unlikely to succeed.

Father O’Connell explained the appeal process (called’“having recourse” in Canon Law) does not actually begin until the parish receives an official decree that it is to be suppressed. Contrary to what many believe, the formal notification that parishes are to be suppressed has not been issued yet.

“What parishes have received, for lack of a canonical term, is a letter of intent. Archbishop O’Malley has informed them that he is going to issue a decree,” Father O’Connell explained.

The formal decrees are expected to be issued to parishes in the form of a letter around the end of the month. The decrees will also be printed in The Pilot around the same time.

Once the formal decree has been received by a parish, “any aggrieved party, not just the pastor, for any just reason, can have recourse to the archbishop,” he said.

Those wishing to exercise that option have 10 days to provide the archbishop with a written request explaining why they would like him to revoke the decree.

The archbishop, in turn, has up to 30 days to respond to the request.

Once the archbishop’s reply is received — or at the end of the 30 day period if he does not reply at all— the party requesting the reconsideration has 15 days to seek recourse from the Vatican if they do not agree with the archbishop’s decision.

However, Father O’Connell said, the grounds for seeking recourse from the Vatican are very limited and most cases the parish in question is closed anyway.

According to Church law“the archbishop has a right to suppress, alter or merge a parish in Canon Law as long as he follows process,” he said.

Father O’Connell explained that under Church law the only real “process” the archbishop is required to follow is that he must “hear the Presbyteral Council” of the archdiocese before suppressing a parish. The archbishop met with the council on May 7, 10 and 11.

In addition, he pointed out, in almost all of those cases where the Vatican has found that proper procedure was not followed, the bishop has simply been required”to redo the process.”

He also noted that ”recourse does not have a suspensive effect,” meaning that the parish closure would not be delayed while the process was underway.

The only other potential grounds for appeal, he said, would be to show that parishioners would be denied access to the sacraments if a parish were to close. Yet, he said, that provision of Canon Law would be more applicable to a far-flung state like Nevada than to densely populated Eastern Massachusetts.

In the end, Father O’Connell said, appealing the archbishop’s decision may only provide a false sense of hope for parishioners.

“An appeal looks like the only option now but it also could just drag out the process and the pain,” he said.