The Boston Archdiocese will close 60 of its 357 parishes, a massive restructuring brought on partly by the sex abuse scandal that aggravated already shrinking Mass attendance and weekly collections.
Archbishop Sean O'Malley announced the parish closings Tuesday, completing a process that began in December when he said the archdiocese would be forced to undergo a major downsizing.
"Today is not an easy day for the people of the Archdiocese of Boston," he said.
He said the reduction was needed because of declining Mass attendance, a shortage of priests and the inability of the archdiocese to support struggling parishes — many in older buildings in desperate need of repairs — in the midst of a financial crisis some say was caused in part by the abuse crisis.
"The movement of people from cities to the suburbs, the decrease in the number of active Catholics, have all contributed to the present predicament," O'Malley said. "The alternative to going through this exercise would be that we would experience a continual decline in some areas of our archdiocese, closing parish after parish, school after school, outreach program after outreach program. ... This we cannot allow to happen."
In addition to the 60 churches that will be closed outright, five others will remain open as worship sites maintained by neighboring parishes and their membership will be merged with that of the other churches, O'Malley said.
The announcement was dreaded by parishioners and pastors, who received word about the fate of their churches in overnight letters from O'Malley delivered Tuesday morning, just hours before he released the complete list of closings during a news conference.
"I am profoundly aware of the emotion the announcement of the closing of a parish evokes," the archbishop said. "I wish there was some way that all of these wonderful houses of life and prayer could remain open and alive and full. But there is not."
The parishes will not close immediately but will gradually be shuttered through the end of the year.
At St. Susanna Parish in Dedham, some parishioners gasped and others cried while the pastor, the Rev. Stephen Josoma, announced that the church would close.
"I feel like we've been betrayed," said Bob Frasca, 74, a retiree who has attended the church since it opened 42 years ago. "I will not give another dime to the archdiocese."
Josoma immediately told the group of about 80 parishioners who gathered in the parish hall that he would appeal the decision to close the church, which has about 800 member families.
Anne Sheridan, 81, of Dedham, said she was disappointed in the leadership of the archdiocese.
"It has shaken the faith of so many people, not just our parish, but all those other parishes that are getting this horrible news today," Sheridan said.
After a lengthy review process, the names of 143 churches were submitted to O'Malley for possible closure. The archbishop made the final decision on which parishes to close after consulting with a panel of priests and bishops. He said discussions about "the radical reconfiguration of the archdiocese" had been under way for many years.
The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said O'Malley tried to give parishioners as much input as possible into the decisions by asking leaders within geographic clusters throughout the archdiocese to hold meetings and submit recommendations on one or two churches to close within their cluster.
Parishes on the list to be closed may appeal to O'Malley. If they fail to change his mind, they can then appeal to the Vatican, but only on procedural grounds, not simply on their belief that their church should remain open, Coyne said.
Older dioceses throughout the country have been closing parishes as the Catholic population shifts into the suburbs, and to the South and West, said Mary Gautier, a senior researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Dioceses in the upper Midwest and the Northeast have seen the most extensive changes.
There were just over 19,000 parishes in the United States last year, according to the center's research.
The closings are occurring as many dioceses nationwide face financial problems due to dwindling investment income and higher insurance costs.
The clergy sex abuse scandal, which began more than two years ago in the Boston Archdiocese, has contributed to these money woes, but O'Malley insisted that was not the reason for the reconfiguration.
"The decision to close parishes is in no way connected with the need to finance the legal settlement with the victims of the clergy abuse scandal," he said.
Still donations have dropped in some dioceses, while others have seen abuse-related costs rise.
Last fall, the archdiocese reached an $85 million agreement to settle lawsuits filed by more than 500 victims of clergy sex abuse.
"Please do not interpret reconfiguration as a defeat," O'Malley said. "It is rather a necessary reorganization for us to be positioned for the challenges of the future, so that the church can be present in every area of the archdiocese with the human and material resources we need to carry on the mission that Christ has entrusted to us."
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