Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has decided that proceeds from church properties sold under his plan to reduce the number of parishes in the archdiocese will go to the central fund of the Boston Archdiocese and not to the parishes left to take on Catholics displaced by the cutbacks.
In a Feb. 13 letter to all Boston priests, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, O'Malley's top deputy, wrote that the archbishop had decided to close the parishes through a canonical procedure known as suppression, which allows the sale proceeds to pay off the debts of the archdiocese.
Instead of formally closing, or suppressing, the parishes, Lennon said, O'Malley could have decided, under canon law, to merge them with a neighboring parish. That would have resulted in the proceeds from the sale of assets going to the new, merged parish.
"The archbishop has deliberately chosen the canonical procedure of suppression rather than that of merger," Lennon wrote in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe.
O'Malley has set a March 8 deadline for leaders from about 80 regional clusters of parishes to recommend which parishes should be shut down under the consolidation plan. Those recommendations will then be considered by two groups of higher church officials before they are submitted to O'Malley for his review.
When he outlined the need for parish closures in a December address, O'Malley made no reference to what would be done with proceeds from the sale of church properties.
The archbishiop plans to announce in April the total number of parishes that must be closed. The decision about which parishes will be shut down will be made over the year.
The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, confirmed yesterday that all proceeds from the property sales will go to the central fund of the archdiocese. He said O'Malley and Lennon are aware that some parishioners might be distressed.
"People have got to know that this is not a land grab or a scheme of some sort," Coyne said. "We will be completely open to all parishioners as to where the money is coming from and where it is going."
He said it is not unusual for the archdiocese to close a parish through suppression, rather than merger. Since 1985, he said, the archdiocese has suppressed 33 parishes and merged 12.
Kathleen Heck, a lawyer recently hired by the archdiocese to coordinate its consolidation process, emphasized that suppression also means that the archdiocese is taking on the debts and other expenses left behind by the closed parishes. She said that some parish leaders have already indicated relief that the burden of the debts, some substantial, will be lifted.
But O'Malley's decision disappointed and angered others concerned about the parish consolidation plan. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Secretary of State William F. Galvin, and officials from the Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group, said they were disappointed that the archdiocese had not, until now, revealed what would be done with the proceeds of property sales.
"This is the first I've heard of where the money is going to go, and that upsets me," Menino said. "Families have been going to these churches for years, and now they hear that they're going to close and the buildings are being sold off."
Galvin called on O'Malley to explain publicly why he had decided to suppress rather than merge the parishes to be closed.
"What has been said so far has implied that this reconfiguration process will end up strengthening the resources of the surviving parishes," he said. "That's a deceit to the people in the pews if the money is going to unknown purposes of the central fund."
David L. Castaldi, a key financial adviser to Voice of the Faithful, said that he had urged three members of O'Malley's inner circle to make the public aware of the financial consequences of the plan to suppress parishes.
"I personally support the decision to close the churches through suppression and as a result have the funds go to the central fund," Castaldi said. "I also support the decision of the archbishop to use these funds for the greater purposes of the archdiocese.
"But if we are to regain the trust of parishioners, then important steps like this one have to be shared with people from the outset, no matter how painful or sensitive they might be," he said.
Castaldi said the archdiocese must be open with parishioners. "The `court of [Catholic] public opinion' would make it extremely difficult for any bishop in any diocese, especially in Boston, to use a geographic parish's money for `central fund' purposes without substantial consultation with the laity in the involved communities," he wrote in a report on his group's website.
Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.