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Catholic churchgoers file lawsuit
over parish mergers.

Archdiocese had no right to close churches,
members of two congregations say

By Tom Heinen
of the Journal Sentinel staff

Published Friday March 3rd, 2000
in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel- Metro Edition

Two groups of dissident Roman Catholic parishioners jointly filed a lawsuit Thursday, contending that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has no right under Wisconsin law to merge parishes.

The groups are from two parishes that were closed in separate actions within the past year over the objections of lay trustees, St. Patrick in the Town of Erin in Washington County, and St. Casimir in Kenosha.

Members of those churches generated some of the most vocal opposition anywhere in the 10-county archdiocese after Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland announced in November 1997 that about 40 parishes would be closed through mergers by July 2001 because of a priest shortage and population shifts.

"I'll tell you why we're doing it, because we feel the archbishop has violated civil law, and I feel somebody has to take a stand," Maureen Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel, a member of Save St. Patrick Parish, said in a recent interview before the suit was filed.

"It's wrong what he did. We were a viable parish. We are in the fastest-growing county in the state of Wisconsin. There was no reason to close our church. We had over $100,000 in the bank."

Their lawsuit is the first such court challenge sparked by Weakland's decision, which was based on the recommendations of a 15-member commission.
At the local level, the suit seeks to have both St. Patrick and St. Casimir reopened, re-staffed at their previous levels, and re-funded by returning bank deposits that were transferred to a new or merged parish.

But the suit, if it succeeds, has much larger ramifications. It is, in effect, challenging the legal foundation upon which parish mergers in dioceses throughout Wisconsin apparently have been based.

"As of yet, we have not been served or seen the lawsuit, and so have been unable to review its contents," said Jerry Topczewski, archdiocesan communications director, Thursday afternoon. "Therefore, we can't comment on its allegations. "However, with regard to the archdiocese's procedures for parish mergers, we are confident that all civil and church laws were followed."

Russell Bohach, the Milwaukee attorney representing the parishioner groups, differed.
"We're looking to the courts to determine whether or not Wisconsin statutes give the Roman Catholic Church the Power to merge parishes over the objection of parishioners, and that, essentially, is what this lawsuit's about."

The suit's chances of success are difficult to estimate, partly because the challenge centers on a gray area of the law.

A section of the statutes covers incorporated religious organizations. But there are separate sections that deal with some specific denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church.

The dissidents note that the general statute allows church mergers and consolidations, but the subsequent section dealing with Catholic churches excludes Catholic churches from the provisions of the general statute. And the Catholic section doesn't say whether mergers and consolidations are permitted.

There are two ways of looking at this, said Dan Fernbach, senior staff attorney with the Legislative Counsel, in an interview last fall.

One can argue that it's OK to do something as long as it isn't specifically prohibited, or one can argue that there was legislative intent to exclude mergers and consolidations from being legal because the law specifically mentions other actions as being legal.

The Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the church, tried to clarify that issue last year by getting legislators to introduce a bill spelling out the merger process.

The bill passed the Assembly and the Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson.

About three-fourths of the announced mergers in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have been completed, Topczewski said.

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