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Canon law says bishop doesn't own parishes.

Bishop Charles V. Grahmann of Dallas was acting in accordance with canon law of the Catholic church when he told a court that he is not the owner of parish properties but holds them in trust for parishioners, according to James Coriden, a canon lawyer who teaches at Washington Theological Union.

Grahmann, facing a $119.5 million civil judgment against the diocese for the actions of a former priest, recently filed legal documents to that effect in an effort to protect parishes against collection efforts related to the suit.

"This is their new scam," said Sylvia Demarest, one of the attorneys for the 11 former altar boys who told a jury about years of sexual abuse by a former Dallas priest Rudolph Kos. "If he can't decide what to do with a parish. e can't close it and use the money for something else. I want parishers around the country to know that their property belongs to them. You and I know that that is a lie."

Coriden said, however, that it is not a lie, although it may appear otherwise, given the considerable influence that bishops have over parish operations.

The ultimate success or failure of Grahmann's effort is more likely to depend on Texas law rather than on canon law, he said. In some states, such as Illinois, diocesan property is organized as a corporation sole, with the bishop as legal owner of all church property, Coriden said. In other states, ownership is more diffuse -- a system actually preferred by the Vatican, he said.

Under canon law, when a bishop closes a parish, which is legally considered a "juridic person," that juridic person ceases to exist and the money goes to the superior juridic person, that is, the diocese, Coriden said. "Usually, though, when a parish is closed, that parish is combined with another parish and the assets go to that parish. People sometimes miscontrue the facts and think a bishop closes a parish just because he wants the assests."

William Bassett, author of the recently published Religious Organizations and the Law (Clark, Boardman and Callahan), said it is quite likely that the Dallas diocese is civilly organized as a trustee corporation. If that is the case, Bishop Grahmann is correct in saying he does not own the parishes, said Bassett, a law professor at the University of San Francisco. "Not all diocese are organized the same way, but only as a corporation sole,' making the bishop the owner of all property, he said.
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Title Annotation:law and church ownership of real property
Author:Schaeffer, Pamela
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 19, 1997
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