Thursday, August 28, 2014

"Occupy Cabrini" Does Not Spare Boston Archdiocese from Property Taxes

Originally Published on on January 8th,2012
I have an affinity for multiples of 15.  It is not from playing cribbage, which I have not done that much.  Rather it is from the way that Sister Christine, a Franciscan nun, cleverly exploited the difficult classroom situation of our third grade.  Our parish, St. John the Baptist of Fairview NJ, was tearing down its decrepit old school and building a new one.  In the mean time, the church basement was divided into four classrooms and we were on half sessions.  The third grade had the bingo board in the upper left hand corner, which Sister Christine used as a visual aid in teaching us multiplication.  Little did we know in that glorious year of half sessions, when we could occupy the little league field, while the public school kids were still in school, that we were witnessing the tail end of a Catholic building boom that would be reversed in our lifetime.  St. John’s School became the St. Elizabeth Seton Interparochial school after a neighboring parish shut its school and was finally closed in 2003.
Closing a parochial school is one thing.  Shutting down an entire parish is another matter.  The Catholics of Scituate, Mass raised money in 1961 to build the St. Frances X. Cabrini church.  As is common for Catholic churches, title is in the name of the Roman Catholic Archbiship of Boston, a Corporation Sole.  Corporation sole is a logical way for title to Catholic church property to be held given the hierarchical nature of the Church.  Don’t try it yourself, unless you want serious IRS trouble.  Nonetheless, despite what both canon and civil law says, the parishioners came to believe that they owned that church.  Maybe that is what happens when you name the place after the first American citizen to be canonized.  In 2004 when the archdioceses decided to shut the parish, someone was careless about locking all the doors.  Some people went in and started a vigil.  They organized a 501(c)(3) organization, The Friends of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, and have been continuously occupying the church for  2,630 days, 11 hours, 1 minutes, 28 seconds last time I checked.
So here is the problem.  You are an assessor for the Town of Scituate and there is this building.  The Archbishop, who should know, says that is not a church anymore.  
It is actually not that hard a problem for an assessor.  When in doubt, tax it.  So the problem then goes to the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board to rule in the case of theRoman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, a Corporation Sole v the Board of Assessors of the Town of Scituate.
In trying to make an argument for continued exemption the archdiocese ended up being hoist on its own petard:
In the present appeals, the Board found that RCAB terminated all official religious activity on the subject properties as of October, 2004. RCAB secured all of the improvements on the subject properties except for the Church which RCAB attempted to secure but did not because of the Vigilers’ occupation. RCAB effectively ceased occupying and using the subject properties for religious worship and instruction as of that time.
In addition to their aforesaid dominant use of the Church, the Vigilers or The Friends conduct a 45-minute lay-lead service at the Church on Sundays. According to the undisputed testimony, these services do not qualify as official Roman Catholic religious services or masses. No priest officiates at these services, and no description of the services was offered. RCAB and/or the Vigilers’ former Parish priest have labeled the Vigilers’ or The Friends’ actions as being, among other things, “illegal, immoral, sinful, and heresy.” The testimony also describes the lay-lead services and any other uses as “miniscule” compared to the Vigilers’ and The Friends’ dominant use.
 So it is hard for the archbishop to argue that this illegal, immoral, sinful and heretical stuff going on qualifies the property for tax exemption.  They can’t ride on the 501(c)(3) status of the occupiers, because occupying is not a valid exempt use.
The Board will rule on valuation in a couple of weeks, which might give them a chance to cut the archdiocese a break.  I’m not sure that I agree with this ruling.  It is not as if the archdiocese is currently using the property to make money.  What they are doing is hesitating to call the cops to kick the people out, which is not that edifying a sight, as this story from Worcester in 1993 illustrates:

The round-the-clock vigil at St. Joseph’s began when Bishop Timothy Harrington of Worcester decided to shut down the church, saying needed repairs would be too expensive. On the final day, June 22, the police chief told the protesters that they were “showing God’s spirit.” Then came the eviction. Some of the officers cried as they led out the 40 occupiers, who sang hymns and wore purple ribbons, the liturgical color of mourning.
 Here are some of pictures of the Cabrini occupiers.  They are not nearly as scruffy as the OWS crowd, but at least, if not quite a bit more, as stubborn.

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