Catholic archdiocese bullies a church to death, at least, as mainstream media see it

OK, I get it. People come to love a church building. It's more than bricks; it's relationships and history.

Throw in a 24/7 prayer vigil for nearly 12 years, and you can see why the closing of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (Catholic) Church near Boston got a big story in the Christian Science Monitor. But the newspaper somehow spins the story as sex abuse and Big Bully versus the Little People.

Yes, they deserve sympathy for their loss. They feel like a church is their home and that Cardinal Sean O'Malley evicted them. The Monitor captures that feeling well:

On Sunday, about 200 parishioners of the Roman Catholic church in the coastal New England town held their last mass after years of protesting the Archdiocese of Boston over its 2004 decision to close their sanctuary. For more than a decade they took turns keeping a vigil, 24/7, to make sure that at least one person was in the church at all times.
After the United States Supreme Court declined to hear their case this month, however, letting stand the rulings of lower courts that found they were trespassing, parishioners ran out of options to keep the doors open. They agreed to vacate the building by 11:59 p.m. Monday.
"Today is like a death in the family: Sad, yet relieved that the pain is over," a choked-up and teary-eyed Margaret O'Brien told WCVB news on Sunday. The 86-year-old says she raised her family in the church.

And the paper says honestly that St. Frances Xavier was among dozens of parishes slated for closing back in 2004 in the Boston archdiocese. What's more, attendance at St. Frances Xavier itself had been falling for years, the Monitor adds.

So why does the paper take wing on the following flight of fancy?

"The way the sex abuse scandal was handled pretty clearly shattered the trust that a lot of people had in the hierarchy," James O'Toole, a professor of history at Boston College, told The New York Times. The vigil likely had been inspired by the writings of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which expanded the role of laypeople in the church, according to Dr. O'Toole.
"It turns out that if you tell the people for 50 years that they are the church, they start to believe it and they start to act on it, and think they have the authority in a way to argue with the hierarchy," he said.

Eh? Where did that come from?

Has O'Toole talked to members of St. Frances Xavier to confirm his guess? And why did only St. Frances Xavier make an issue of it, not the other seven archdiocesan churches that held vigils? Shouldn't O'Toole have been asked?

Much of this sounds familiar to me. As a newspaper religion writer, I covered the closing of 14 parishes and ministries in the Archdiocese of Miami more than six years ago.

I heard much the same stories in those parishes at the time.  People mourned that they'd grown up there, and so had their children. They wrote letters, held protests and complained that the archbishop didn’t listen to them. The difference, not to boast too much, is that I got archdiocesan officials to give their side.

What does Cardinal O'Malley say back? We won't know from this story. I see no effort to contact anyone there. In fact, I'm not sure I see any original reporting -- this is pretty much a patchwork job from the New York Times, the Boston Herald and TV news stations.

When you read the New York Times piece, you see where the Monitor got its errors. The Times ran more than 200 words more, but it's no more balanced; it just adds more anguish by more parishioners.

At least the Monitor left out this extremely cheap shot in the Times:

The abuse scandal loomed large over the day’s proceedings, and the leader of the service, Terry McDonough, criticized the archdiocese. “The hierarchy has to lead, fall or get out of the way,” he said, adding, “That is the great tragedy: that those who have no children are destroying the spiritual homes of our children.”

This is the only half-hearted stab at fairness in the Times piece:

In a statement, the archdiocese said it hoped the congregants would join other parishes. “Their sense of loss from the closing of the parish is understandable,” the statement said. “For this reason the archdiocese kept its commitment to allow the appeals process to conclude both in civil and canonical courts.”

That's right, the old "In a statement" tokenism. This amid nine live quotes from parishioners, Professor O'Toole and a lawyer who has taken other cases of closed churches. It's clear which side you're meant to identify with.

Nor do the TV stations exactly pose as models of responsible reporting.

WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston, shows parishioners telling us how heartsick they are and how insensitive the archdiocese has been. CBS Evening News goes further, with a reporter asking a parishioner why the archdiocese would close St. Frances Xavier. The woman replies, "I don't know, but I anticipate that this church will be bulldozed and there will be large houses going up."

Neither report seeks an answer from the archdiocese. They also don't offer any context nationally, any more than the Monitor did. If they had, they'd likely have ended up with the Center For Applied Research in the Apostolate.

There, they would have learned that parishes nationwide have dwindled to 17,233, from a peak of 19,705 in 1988. And most of the drop has happened since 2000, says Mark Gray, senior research associate at CARA. Moreover, most closings have happened in the Northeast and Midwest, even as parishes open in the South and West.

None of that would have fostered the drama of faithful parishioners standing up to a callous, brutal hierarchy. They'd only gain a better understanding of actual issues.

Thumb: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church, from the church's website.

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