Thursday, August 29, 2002

Well, it seems to be ethical conflicts week here on the other side of the Looking Glass.

Along those lines, here's more news from Boston: the church has responded to the Boston Herald's front-pager which I pointed out a couple of days ago.

Taking the story from the top: this spring, the church announced a settlement in the $30-$40 million range with the victims of one deviant priest, John Geoghan, and then pulled back at the eleventh hour, after a finance board refused to approve the deal, saying it would leave no cash in the till to compensate the victims of other priests --- thus exercising a veto power which the attorneys for the victims had never been informed of, which had not been mentioned in coverage of the matter in even the church's own newspaper, and which it had not otherwise exercised, as far as anyone can recall, ever. The victims' attorneys are presently in court trying to hold the church to the settlement, claiming, in effect, that they were negotiating with the archbishop, who had sole authority to dispose of the church's resources, and when he said they had a deal, they had a deal.

In the middle of these hearings, the Boston Herald had a fairly simple question: what resources does the church (often described as "land-rich and cash-poor") have that could easily be used to pay the victims? A quick search of title deeds found $160 million in property which was being used for no church-related purpose at all --- one building, for instance, was being rented to a spice company. (And that doesn't count the other portions of the church's property which are being used, but could be given up without undue sacrifice --- like the Cardinal's palatial residence, and the adjacent seminary, which is nearly vacant; the whole parcel has a ready buyer in Boston College, a separate Catholic institution, but one which has the money and needs the space).

To which the church yesterday responds, through the woman with the worst job in Boston right now, its spokesman, Donna Morrissey:

The church in Boston exists in the spheres of both civil and canon law. While under civil law, the properties are listed as Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, a corporate sole, under canon law local parishes own the vast majority of the properties listed in the Boston Herald. These properties, and parcels, are parish assets and revenue derived from the rental or sale of those assets is used to sustain the parish operations or capital needs.

But, the law doesn't allow parties to evade judgment just by adopting rules which don't allow them to comply, even if they take the overt form of religious bodies. It's not legal for Rastafarians to smoke pot in the United States just because it happens to be one of their sacraments. (Catholic canon law experts cited by the Herald today make the same point, that canon law defers to civil law in civil matters). The effect is as if McDonald's had responded to the much-misunderstood scalding-coffee verdict by saying that:

McDonald's exists in the spheres of both civil and McDonaldLand law. While under civil law, its cash assets are treated as property of the McDonalds corporation, incorporated in Delaware, under McDonaldLand law, they are entirely under the control of the Hamburglar, and so we cannot use them to pay off civil judgments against food establishments which are the responsibility of Mayor McCheese.

The difference, of course, is that McDonald's isn't in the business of offering ethical guidance.


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