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Priest asks cardinal to delay mergers

Claims pastors at risk in plan

A proposal by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to cut costs by organizing its 290 parishes into 125 groups that share resources could crush its pastors, who now face a bleak future after sustaining the church through the clergy sexual abuse scandal, a veteran priest wrote in a letter to Cardinal Sean O'Malley obtained by Associated Press.

"I can well imagine that the very process of implementing such a proposal would result in serious psychological and even physical sickness,'' wrote Monsignor William M. Helmick, pastor of Saint Theresa of Avila in West Roxbury.

The priests "would feel as if they and what they have done and continue to do is of no value and is not appreciated,'' wrote Helmick, who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination.

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Helmick wrote O'Malley Dec. 9, days after all archdiocesan priests gathered at a function hall in Randolph to discuss the proposal, which aims to improve efficiency and put the archdiocese in a better position for growth and to spread the faith.

The letter was given to the Associated Press by Peter Borre, head of the Council of Parishes, a group formed to oppose church closings. Borre said he did not get the letter from Helmick, but released it with permission from someone who received it from Helmick.

Phone and e-mail messages to Helmick yesterday were not returned.

Terry Donilon, spokesman for the archdiocese, pointed out that the letter was written two months ago and said it has since become increasingly clear to many priests that, though the plan is far from final, the archdiocese is headed in the right direction.

"If we do nothing, we're going to have fewer priests, we're going to have fewer people going to Mass, we're going to have more parishes in financial trouble . . . and the cardinal is saying: 'I don't accept any of that. I do not accept that premise,' '' Donilon said.

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The Boston Archdiocese, with 1.8 million Catholics, is the nation's fourth largest.

The church released its proposal late last year, arguing that its traditional parish structure cannot be sustained in an archdiocese where only 16 percent of local Catholics attend Mass and where more than a third of parishes cannot pay bills.

The key part of the archdiocese's proposal sees the parishes divided into 125 "collaboratives,'' each with one to four parishes, which would share buildings and resources and be run by a "pastoral service team,'' led by one pastor.

Helmick wrote that his concern starts with "simple mathematics,'' which indicate that 165 priests now serving as a pastor at a parish will not be chosen to lead a collaborative and will be dismissed as a pastor.

"Given that all of us who are pastors are vessels of clay, and not all of the pastors are equally effective, it is nonetheless true that the pastors, in a most significant and irreplaceable way, kept the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Boston alive in the parishes following the devastating reaction . . . to the abuse scandal,'' he wrote.

The scandal broke in 2002 after documents showed that for years the church had transferred pedophile priests among parishes without revealing their crimes.

Helmick suggests allowing pastors to retire as normal, until they number 125, as the best way to avoid outraging the public and demoralizing priests, even if it takes longer than the three to five years the archdiocese says it will need to make the changes.

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He concluded by writing: "I hope I have not ruined your day by sending you this letter.''

Donilon said that, on the contrary, O'Malley welcomed the letter from Helmick - whom Donilon called "one of our best pastors'' - and had received others like it. He said there is no plan to dismiss pastors.

Not every current pastor will lead a collaborative, and anxiety among priests about their roles in the new structure is understandable, Donilon said. But the goal of the still-developing plan is to free the church from the burden of maintaining an outdated structure so priests can focus on spreading the faith, he said.