Now and then a writer hits a nerve. In the case of my column on the threatened closing of my neighborhood church, St. Thomas More, by the Archdiocese of New York, I hit some inflamed and throbbing ones.
Here is the column protesting church closings in the archdiocese, questioning the reasons behind them, and offering suggestions for alternative ways for the archdiocese to raise money.
Here is a reply from Bishop John O’Hara of the New York Archdiocese, printed as a letter to the editor in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.
Bishop O’Hara also wrote an op-ed-style response in Sunday’s New York Post. It is not available online, but I will quote from it.
* * *
To clear away small things:
Bishop O’Hara says I imply the decision to close St. Thomas More has been made. I said it is “threatened.” It is. I asked Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York’s archbishop, to save it. He can.
The bishop says I committed “a deliberate injustice” to the cardinal by implying the cost of the ongoing $180 million refurbishment of St. Patrick’s Cathedral has added to the archdiocese’s financial pressures. But it has added to those pressures: It is not paid for. How is it an injustice to point that out? The bishop says the cardinal “has spent countless hours” fundraising. I am certain this is true, and certain everyone feels sympathy for his efforts to turn pledges and promises into checks.
Bishop O’Hara suggests there are too many churches in our general neighborhood. I promise the bishop, Upper East Siders are precisely the kind of people who need a lot of churches and a whole lot of sacraments. But in terms of the larger church, three or four functioning parishes in a small area is our glory, not our disability. And if the archdiocese looked closer, they would see that each church has different jobs and offers different programs. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a very great church also threatened with closing, offers masses and spiritual care for the deaf. St. Ignatius Loyola runs admired schools and offers a majestic setting for those who like majesty. All these churches are separate and complementary.
* * *
In an unfortunate and, I’m sorry to say, cheap twisting of words, the bishop suggests I hold a bias toward those he calls the “rich.” Readers can judge for themselves. Here I take the opportunity to clarify what I mean by excellence in a parish church. St. Thomas More is “excellent” because it is alive, spreads the word of Christ to young and old of all condition and circumstance, is a steward and local citizen, and manages not only to pay its bills but contribute to the archdiocese. It is a believing and vital part of the body of Christ, and its excellence should not be punished but encouraged.
It appears, however, to be in a position similar to the charter schools in the de Blasio era: They serve their needy students brilliantly, but they receive some encouragement and funds from the affluent, so they are targeted in the name of “fairness.”
* * *
To larger issues:
In my column, I wrote that if gaining new funds for the archdiocese through the sale of real estate (in the form of shuttered churches) is a rationale for the closings, the archdiocese should instead consider selling the cardinal’s splendid 15,000-foot mansion on Madison Avenue. That would have the benefit of more closely aligning the church of New York with the modest style of Pope Francis in Rome.
Bishop O’Hara responds, in the Journal: “It is unclear how she envisions removing a portion of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and putting it up for sale, because the residence is not only a landmarked property, but it is also, literally, a part of the cathedral.”
Everyone knows the residence is landmarked because the archdiocese has for so many years spread that fact around as an excuse not to sell it. Is it a good excuse? Here is an explanation of landmarking law from New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Here is an explanation of regulation from the National Register of Historic Places. From the register’s website: “There are no restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition” of listed properties.
Landmarking protects buildings from being demolished or dramatically altered, usually externally, without permission. It also generally limits air rights, which the bishop does not mention in either of his replies. But buildings that are landmarked can be sold, or rented.
CNN some time back estimated the market value of the cardinal’s mansion at $30 million “as is”—for the building itself, in its current condition. That was a few months into New York’s high-end real estate boom, which continues to quicken.
As for the assertion that the mansion is part of the cathedral, or in it, or on top of or underneath it—my goodness. There is a picture of the mansion in the CNN piece above; readers can judge for themselves what the mansion is. It was not built as “part” of the cathedral but added on to it six years later. It operates as a structure connected to but in all practical ways independent of the cathedral. I add that I know the mansion fairly well, having met with and interviewed Cardinal John O’Connor there. He was a great man, a tender-hearted leader who admitted he wasn’t so good with the books but tried hard to keep every part of the greater church alive.
In short, the cardinal’s Madison Avenue mansion could probably be sold or rented if the archdiocese had a mind to do so.
I add here that the archdiocesan headquarters at 1011 First Avenue, where they make the decisions to close local churches, could also be shuttered to the archdiocese’s profit, and the headquarters moved to neighborhoods and boroughs that could use the boost.
The bishop’s interest in landmarking has an echo in the frantic attempts of some of the threatened parish churches to protect themselves by gaining landmark status. They do this in an attempt to keep themselves from being demolished. But the landmarking process takes time. It is widely suspected in the parishes that they were given only a few months to defend themselves against closure because the archdiocese knew the landmarking process takes years.
* * *
I raised in my column the myriad financial demands faced by the archdiocese, including the costs the past 20 or so years of fees and payments associated with the clergy sex scandals.
Bishop O’Hara, in the New York Post: “She resorts to the usual criticisms of the Church. While she mentions the cost of sexual abuse cases, she must know that such is not the case for the Archdiocese of New York, which has not had to pay large settlements. . . . The situation in New York is completely different than the one found in Boston, where a decade ago Cardinal [Sean] O’Malley did sell the estate that included the residence for the archbishop of Boston, motivated by a need to pay sex abuse settlements (which we have not had here in New York).”
As a loyal Catholic, I have been writing about the clergy sex-abuse scandals since the 1990s. Because of that, I have many times faced personal and professional abuse from the church hierarchy. But I have never heard a bishop defend an archdiocese by saying, in effect, “We’re not as bad as Boston!”
Being better in this regard than Boston, whose cardinal, Bernard Law, in 2002 had to skip town to dodge state troopers with subpoenas, is not something to brag about. This is taking traditional rivalries between the two cities too far.
It is hard to know the exact cost of the scandals in New York. The last time the New York Archdiocese released numbers on the costs was 11 years ago, in 2004. It admitted, as reported in the New York Times, that it had paid $6.2 million to abuse victims for counseling and legal settlements, $1.1 million for treatment for clerics, and more than a million dollars in legal fees. The archdiocese’s insurers paid another $4.2 million toward victim settlements. Joe Zwilling, the archdioceses spokesman, said that 136 people had made accusations of abuse.
More-recent accusations can be found at http://bishop-accountability.org.
It is true that New York had a lower abuse rate than Boston’s. It is also true that the reason for this is New York law. “The Archdiocese of New York got off very easily compared to other dioceses around the country solely because of the statute in New York which harshly restricts the ability of abuse victims to sue,” said Paul Mones, a children’s rights advocate and sexual abuse lawyer, in a telephone interview. “There were numerous victims in the New York Archdiocese and the Dioceses of Rockville Center and Brooklyn, but they never got their day in court because of the statute of limitations.” Other states during the scandals opened up one- to three-year “windows” in which anyone who had been abused could seek legal redress. “A bill to do the same in New York has repeatedly been defeated for the last several years, largely because of the lobbying of the church,” said Mr. Mones.
The clergy abuse scandals have cost the New York Archdiocese much-needed money. Settlements were paid. That money would be welcome now, and could be part of saving local churches.
* * *
A last point.
In his response in the Post, Bishop O’Hara, attempting to show how hard the archdiocese has engaged with parishioners, speaks of meetings he had after two masses at St. Thomas More. “In fact, at one of these meetings, a parishioner suggested that a merger between St. Thomas More and Our Lady of Good Council Parish might make more sense for a variety of reasons, and this suggestion will be given serious consideration.” Further down he adds, “Merging St. Thomas More parish with a neighboring parish is not so farfetched a recommendation as Noonan would have people believe.”
I spoke to Bishop O’Hara by telephone for more than 45 minutes two days after the meeting he cites and a day before I wrote my column. In that conversation I argued against the closing of St. Thomas More and its proposed merging with St. Ignatius, and put forward the idea of keeping St. Thomas More alive and formally or informally merging it with Our Lady of Good Council, which would also be kept alive. The bishop sounded startled by this proposal, and asked if the parishes would go for it. I said I spoke for no one but myself but the members of both parishes would, I guessed, do anything to keep their churches alive.
It is peculiar that Bishop O’Hara accuses me of considering “farfetched” a proposal I put forward to him. I really can’t think of a good reason he’d do that.