As the Archdiocese of Baltimore faces potential bankruptcy, untangling its assets proves murky

Lee O. Sanderlin and Jonathan M. Pitts, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Religious News

BALTIMORE -- A law making it easier for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits goes into effect Sunday, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore is already preparing for how to pay survivors.

The Child Victims Act, passed in April on the heels of a state attorney general’s report that details the history of how Catholic clergy and lay people abused children and how the church covered it up, will likely result in dozens, if not hundreds, of lawsuits against the diocese. With civil suits looming, Archbishop William E. Lori is openly suggesting that America’s oldest Catholic diocese will consider filing for bankruptcy as a means to protect itself and limit liability.

Should that happen, the diocese’s assets — its cash, investments and, most importantly, its property — will be used to pay off the victims turned creditors. But determining what the diocese actually owns versus what it controls is murky business, mired in corporate filings rooted in long-standing canonical law.

For at least three decades, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has carefully shuffled its assets into a variety of legal entities to protect them in the event of legal troubles.

The proof is in the paperwork. St. Louis Parish in Clarksville, the site of some of the most horrific abuse and torture described in the Maryland attorney general’s report, is owned not by the archdiocese but by an entity known as St. Louis’ Roman Catholic Congregation Inc. Yet a review of public records shows that even though this religious corporation owns the parish, it remains under the control of the diocese.

A 2011 deed for parish lists the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski as the vice president of the St. Louis corporation. Rozanski was not a priest in the parish at the time, but an auxiliary bishop of the Baltimore archdiocese. He is now the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri.


While the name of the corporation suggests the congregation owns the parish, a clause in the deed prohibits parishioners from selling its buildings or the land they’re on, or otherwise alienating the property to the larger Catholic Church, without the diocese’s permission.

And St. Louis parish isn’t the only one. Virtually every parish property in the Baltimore diocese’s jurisdiction — a territory that claims 153 parishes and missions — is owned not by the archdiocese itself but by a corporation that, despite carrying the name of the parish’s congregation, ties back to the larger church. The same is true for the deeds, which cite Catholic canon law as the reason for the stringent control requirements.

“As more and more dioceses move toward bankruptcy protection, it has become obvious that this is a way of controlling risk, of limiting exposure,” said Terry McKiernan, director of the nonprofit, which tracks abuse cases. “There’s a lot of strategizing going on.”

A spokesperson for the Baltimore diocese did not respond to questions before publication.


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