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"Canonical Equity" challenges Pell

Australian Reforming Catholics is considering an action which would take Cardinal Pell to Rome. The group says that the Archdiocese may have failed to observe a number of canonical requirements in the matter of the church at Broadway and the Sacred Heart parish at Darlinghurst, both of which have been earmarked as sites for the proposed Sydney campus of WA's Notre Dame University. Preliminary works at Broadway were begun recently and a development application is currently on view.

Australian Reforming Catholics has become aware of a case which was reported in The Jurist in 1995 (Vol 55 No 2, pp 875-896) in a matter involving Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago. The Cardinal set about closing ('suppressing') a number of parishes in Chicago without undertaking the process of consultation with priests and parish finance council that the Code of Canon Law of 1983 mandates.

The Chicago laity took Cardinal Bernadin to Rome, to the Signatura, the Vatican's 'supreme tribunal'. The Signatura affirmed the canonical principle of consultation, that the people must at the least be heard before parishes are suppressed or otherwise altered. The Cardinal was required to go back and undertake an appropriate process of consultation which to some degree changed the outcomes.

Australian Reforming Catholics' spokesperson, John Buggy, told Online Catholics:
"We understand that the lack of consultation at Broadway and Darlinghurst has been scandalous, as well as inconsistent between the two parishes."

According to parishioners at Darlinghurst, Fr Egan at Darlinghurst has alleged to have been pressured into signing a initial "written letter of support" prior to signing a "heads of agreement" document, giving the Archdiocese the right to substantially alter the parish. But this document is not available for the parish finance committee, which is required under the Archdiocese's own Statutes.

The Archdiocesean Statutes for Finance Committees states: 'It is a general principle of the Code of Canon Law that every person who administers temporal goods on behalf of a group is to consult with that group in carrying out the administration (cf. e.g. canons 1280; 492-494; 634-640). For parishes, can. 537 makes it obligatory that there be a finance committee to advise the parish priest.' (Archdiocese of Sydney Statutes for Finance Committees, 1988).

Over at Broadway, the finance committee has been unable to advise the parish priest, because Fr Terry Purcell has not even received a letter informing him of the Archdiocese's intentions, according to his Finance Committee chairman, Mark Blackman. Equiset, part of the Grollo group, have begun preliminary works. "We understand that that Equiset are contracted not by the Archdiocese, but by Notre Dame University," Mr Buggy said. "How is that reasonable? The lands are either owned by the parish, or by the Archdiocese - how is it that Notre Dame now has the right to enter into a commercial contract without any community consultation?"

The Jurist article, by Thomas Paprocki, also found that the Signatura affirmed the obligation of the Bishop to consult with the Presbyter's Council, or the Council of Priests (Senate of Priests in Melbourne). According to a member of the Sydney Council of Priests, this group was informed of decisions about the two parishes that had already been made. "This was just in the nature of an information download," said the priest, who preferred not to be named. "You wouldn't call it a process of consultation."

Meetings between representatives of the Archdiocese and Sacred Heart Darlinghurst parishioners and Notre Dame University have occurred. However Laelie Schwartz, finance committee chair, wrote to Danny Casey, Business Manager for the Archdiocese, asking to receive a copy of the Archdiocese's letter of agreement with the Parish Priest (who stands in place of the parish, canonically). Because of the cancellation of the most recent Sacred Heart finance committee meeting by Fr Egan, the parish has had no opportunity to view the letter of agreement Fr Egan had signed.

"The Archdiocese keeps saying that the parish is not being suppressed, that the parish will continue and we will have "access" to the buildings," Mrs Schwartz said. "When I asked Mr Casey about a replacement for Fr. Brian who leaves on Boxing Day, Dr. Tannock said that Notre Dame expected to have a say in who is appointed parish priest here, to ensure that it was someone 'in sympathy with the aims of the University'. I did not see Mr Casey argue that the parish's needs were also important," Mrs Schwartz said. "I do not believe our concerns have been addressed by the Archdiocese," she said.

A canon lawyer consulted by Online Catholics said: "Assets belong to the parish. If a parish is to be suppressed, or 'notably altered' (Canon 515), the bishop must consult with the Council of Priests and the College of Consultors. If a property is to be leased, that too requires a series of consultations, and the action must not disadvantage the parish."

According to this authority the decision regarding the case of Cardinal Bernadin did not affirm the rights of the priest or the parish community to have a say in a decision. But it did affirm the canonical rights of a community to participate in a genuine consultative process, a process both Darlinghurst and Broadway finance spokespersons, Laelie Schwartz and Mark Blackman, believe has not occurred.

Online Catholics asked Sydney Archdiocesan canon lawyer Fr Chris Sheehy for an opinion on this matter. Fr Sheehy said that he could not make a comment on the particular cases, not being apprised of the facts. However he did say that actions needed to be tested to determine their canonical validity.

The most important canon, according to Fr Sheehy, was the final canon, 1752, which introduces the idea of 'canonical equity'. "Canon law presupposes that all of the faithful enter into all conversations with one another in a spirit of honesty, truthfulness and charity," said Fr Sheehy. "The canonical term for this is 'canonical equity'. Canonical equity means justice, tempered by the gentleness of mercy."

Australian Reforming Catholics agrees. "If all that has been claimed regarding lack of genuine consultation with these parishes is true, then we are most concerned that the spirit and intent of Canon law - and indeed natural justice - be effected," Mr Buggy said.

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  • 1983 Code of Canon Law
  • Archdiocese of Sydney Statutes for Finance Committees
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