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Judge orders vigilers to leave closed Scituate church

Former parishioners at the closed St. Frances Cabrini Church in Scituate remain in vigil May 14, 2015. Earlier in the day, a Superior Court judge had ruled that those holding vigil must leave by May 29. Pilot photo/Christopher S. Pineo

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SCITUATE -- Norfolk County Superior Court judge Edward P. Leibensperger ruled the vitgil at the former parish St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Scituate an act of trespass, May 14, and gave the former parishioners who have been holding an 11-year vigil 15 days to leave the property.

"We appreciate the court having taken the time to review this matter and issue a clear and thoughtful ruling. We ask the Friends of St. Frances to respect that decision and conclude the vigil," archdiocesan spokesman Terrence C. Donilon said.

The archdiocese had asked those keeping the vigil, the Friends of St. Frances, to vacate in two letters after a ruling by the Vatican's highest court upheld the closure under canon law, but when vigil goers stayed after a March 9 deadline the archdiocese took action against them in court.

After the Norfolk County judge ruled in favor of the archdiocese, the vigil group remained in place at the former parish.

Donilon called on the vigil group to consider participating in Catholic parish life at another parish.

"The parishes of the Archdiocese welcome and invite those involved with the vigil to participate and join in the fullness of parish life," he said.

At the former parish, a spokesman for the group said they intend to stay in place.

"Right now, I think that this needs to be appealed. It needs to be appealed not only for us but for all the other churches," Jon Rogers said.

Rogers has been with the vigil since the 2004 Parish Reconfiguration process, when the archdiocese "suppressed," or legally dissolved, 70 parishes and subsequently closed most of their church buildings. In response, former parishioners at 11 parishes, including St. Frances X. Cabrini, filed appeals of the suppressions with the Vatican. In addition, former parishioners of various parishes occupied several church buildings to keep them from closing. St. Frances X. Cabrini is the last former church with an ongoing vigil.

The history of the civil case goes back as far as 2005, when former parishioners argued in court that they held an "equitable interest" in the property -- claiming that the archdiocese held the property in trust to benefit the parishioners. Courts dismissed the lawsuit and the dismissal held on appeal.

In 2015, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley sent letters to the vigil in July and February, after appeals under canon law reached their conclusion at the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest court. The second letter set a March 9 deadline for an end to the vigil, which prompted the current case.

In May, the archdiocese claimed in a Superior Court that those in vigil were trespassing on the property of the former parish. The vigil moved to dismiss the claim on the grounds that civil court did not hold the authority to rule on the case, claiming it was an ecclesiastical matter. The judge in the case, Leibensperger, denied the motion to dismiss.

In his ruling, the judge made no attempt to determine whether or not Canon 1214 -- which gives parishioners access to a church for divine worship purposes -- could be interpreted to include an around-the-clock vigil. He said he "must not because to do so would involve the court in an ecclesiastical question."

"There can be no dispute, however, that neutral principles of civil property law are capable of determining a property owner's right to determine when individuals may be on the property," Judge Leibensperger wrote.

He also dismissed a counterclaim by the vigil for reimbursement of $37,000 for maintenance and repairs the former parishioners did over time, because the claim failed to show any kind of agreement with the archdiocese related to the costs.

"Throughout the relevant period, RCAB (the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston) maintained the property by paying for utilities such as water, heat and electricity. RCAB paid for or performed services such as landscaping and maintenance, snow removal and repairs to the building," the judge wrote.

He also noted that in 2010 the archdiocese began paying real estate taxes to the Town of Scituate.

"At no time did RCAB ask defendants to pay anything for maintenance and repair. At no time did RCAB agree to reimburse defendants for amounts voluntarily expended for maintenance of the building," he wrote.

Ultimately, the judge ruled in favor of the archdiocese that the vigil constitutes trespass under neutral property law and gave those holding the vigil until May 29 to clear out.

At the closed church in Scituate, Rogers spoke about the emotional impact of the ruling on those keeping the vigil.

"The emotional aspect is it's crushing. It's crushing. We have invested 11 years of our time, treasure and talents in this. We have invested a lifetime in our spiritual home, and they're going to take it away just because they consider us disobedient," he said.

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