Pope's trip comes as U.S. churches fight to survive

When Pope Francis comes to New York City's East Harlem neighborhood on Friday, he will visit the thriving Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Elementary School. Next door, however, the church of the same name has been closed for eight years. Since 2007, congregants intent on saving their sanctuary worshiped outside and even submitted themselves to arrest to protest the closure, all to no avail.

No doubt Pope Francis's visit to the United States, his first, has been great for the image of the Catholic Church, hit hard by sex-abuse scandals, a drop-of in attendance, and a growing percentage of parishes with no resident pastor present. It comes at an awkward time for many Catholic bishops, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest, grappling with push-back from parishioners irate over the shuttering of hundreds of churches like Our Lady Queen of Angels.

"It is very disheartening to see parish closures," said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, who notes many of the ones targeted for closure were formed by European immigrant communities in the 19th and early 20th century in places like New York and Philadelphia that have since moved on. "Part of it is shifting demographics in the former strongholds in the northeast where you would see Italian and Polish parishes spring up practically next door to one another but serving different congregations."

Cummings says the ongoing parish realignments are playing out as the Catholic Church shifts its limited resources to where the 21st century needs are, while also finding the money to settle long-standing legal claims stemming from multiple sex-abuse scandals. "A church does not exist to perpetuate itself for its buildings. A church exists to bring the gospel to the people of God," Cummings told CBS MoneyWatch.

"The Catholic Church was unusual among religions in that the actual buildings are owned by the Archdiocese, whereas with the Jewish and Protestant faiths they are owned by the individual congregations," said Ken Jackson, professor in history and the social sciences at Columbia University and editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of New York City. "I used to think that was an advantage for the Catholic Church because it meant they were well positioned to serve the next wave of immigrants but now that the Church has to keep the lights and heat on in these huge edifices [with declining attendance] it may have become a costly disadvantage."

Shifting demographics are only part of the ongoing legal and financial challenges that puts pressure on the Church and its assets, which include significant real estate holdings. An audit put out earlier this year by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops indicated that last year alone the Church was hit with over 600 new sexual abuse claims that needed to be investigated and it had to pay out close to $160 million dollars in victim settlements and related costs. Over the years these costs have run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

So far, a dozen Catholic dioceses and two religious orders have been forced into bankruptcy, including the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that was presided over by then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who assumed leadership of the Archdiocese of New York in 2009 and was elevated to Cardinal in 2012.

Back in the fall of 2014 Cardinal Dolan announced that 112 parishes in the Archdiocese of New York would be compressed into 55 new parishes. Dozens of churches were to be closed as a consequence. According to the Archdiocese's website, the Cardinal's decisions were the result of an elaborate consultative process that engaged priests and parishioners along with the Reid Group, a private-sector professional management company.

But critics of the New York church closures and others around the U.S. say the closure process is often dominated by short-term financial concerns. "There are parishes that are being closed that are vibrant communities that have very dynamic ministries that are serving the poor," said Jim FitzGerald, executive director of Call to Action, a national organization of Catholics committed to increasing the role of the laity in the Catholic Church's decision making.

Across the country dozens of parishes have decided to seek redress in the courts and under the auspices of the Catholic Churches Canonical Law proceedings which permits parishioners to appeal their church's closure to the Vatican directly. "In 1983 a new version of Canon Law came out of Vatican II where the laity not only has the right, but the responsibility, to tell their bishop what their needs and desires are in relationship to their religious life," said Sister Kate Kuenstler, a canon lawyer, whose work is supported by her religious order, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.

"In Vatican II for the first time since the early church the laity was promoted to take an active role in the life of the Church but in the decades that followed the laity was left outside the decision making," Kuenstler told CBS MoneyWatch. Kuenstler says she sees in Pope Francis a return to the Vatican II reform agenda.

Kuenstler has been successful in overturning several church closures and is now representing 26 New York City parishes appealing Cardinal Dolan's decision to the Vatican. "The Cardinal is closing churches in areas that are very desirable from a real estate perspective where celebrities like Madonna live and where there is going to be a new subway line," said Kuenstler. "The bottom line is these mergers and closures are all about hard, cold cash that the Cardinal needs to head off serious financial trouble."

One of the churches Kuenstler represents is St. Elizabeth of Hungary up on the city's Upper East Side, which serves the Archdiocese's deaf population. The church's pastor, Monseigneur Patrick McCahill, told the New York Times he understood the Archdiocese has financial problems but added: "You are not going to solve those problems by going against your basic instincts of serving people. Please don't let these people, who are marginalized in so many ways by society, be marginalized by the church."

The press office for the Archdiocese of New York did not return requests seeking comment. Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, in January told the real estate newspaper the Real Deal that the potential windfall from selling church properties was not what was driving Cardinal Dolan's decision making, but rather a need to make parishes more economically self-sufficient. The Archdiocese spends about $40 million dollars annually to help struggling parishes make ends meet, he said.

A decision by the Vatican on the New York City churches looking to reverse Cardinal Dolan's closure plans is expected in November.