BOSTON – Parishioners illegally occupying a long-closed Roman Catholic church were issued a reprieve Wednesday after a judge ruled they could continue their round-the-clock vigil while they appeal a lower court decision that ordered them to vacate.
Mary Elizabeth Carmody, the lawyer for the Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini Church, said she was surprised how quick the decision was but added that the key test was still to come. A three-panel judge will next consider their bid to have the order declaring them trespassers thrown out altogether, she said. Arguments in that case will come at a later date.
“It’s a relief,” Carmody said late Wednesday. “But it doesn’t surprise me, based on the judge’s comments in court.”
Earlier Wednesday, Associate Justice Judd Carhart heard arguments in a brief hearing packed with protesters.
Carmody argued that a lower court judge had made “several, consistent” legal errors and “abused” his discretion when he considered the Archdiocese of Boston’s petition to remove the protesters from the property.
The protesters say the judge, among other things, wrongly denied their request for a jury trial and did not consider their primary arguments, which were largely focused on church law.
“It resulted in a decision by the court that is not well-reasoned, not supported by the evidence in the case and contrary to other Superior Court decisions,” Carmody argued.
But the archdiocese opposed the request, citing the cost of maintaining the building and their liability if someone is injured on the premises.
The protesters “have no right to be on the property,” said William Dailey, the archdiocese lawyer. “They knew from the time they first went into the church that they were trespassers and that they were subject to arrest at any time.”
The Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini is the last of a number of groups that resorted to physical occupation of church buildings after the archdiocese decided to close dozens of Boston-area churches around 2004 in an attempt to stabilize its finances.
The protesters have occupied the church in Scituate around-the-clock ever since, with at least one person holding vigil in the now-deconsecrated building at all times and members holding well-attended Sunday services each week.
The protesters say they want the archdiocese to either restore their parish’s standing or let them purchase the building outright.
The church sits on roughly 30 acres of prime, largely undeveloped real estate overlooking Massachusetts Bay about 30 miles south of Boston.
They say their fight is not only about protecting the rights of Catholics to worship in churches they’ve known their whole lives, but also a stand against the clergy sex abuse scandal that rocked the Boston-area before expanding nationally and globally.
After the hearing, a few protesters expressed doubt the courts would ultimately side in their favour. But even if they lost in the end, they said the long fight was not in vain.
“People are more aware now of how the church hierarchy deals with parishioners,” said Terry McDonough, who says he spends one night a week sleeping at the church as part of the protest group. “They encourage you to participate, and they when you try to participate, they say ‘Sit down and shut up.’ It’s not right.”
In court, Dailey, the archdiocese lawyer, argued that there would be “absolutely no harm” to protesters if they end their occupation while the appeal is decided. He promised the archdiocese has “no intent” of selling or razing the property while the appeal is pending.
Protesters after the hearing, however, said that promise wasn’t reassuring. They are concerned the building will fall into disrepair if they leave.
On top of roughly $100,000 in legal costs, the group says it’s spent thousands of dollars more on routine upkeep and major repairs that the archdiocese has failed to do.