CLEVELAND — Critics of widespread church closings in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese called Thursday for the bishop to implement an extraordinary Vatican ruling and quickly reopen 13 churches in the predominantly Catholic city.
Bishop Richard Lennon must decide whether to abide by the ruling from the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy or challenge it before the church's top court.
Spokesman Robert Tayek said Thursday the bishop has unofficial copies of the ruling but must await certified documents from the Vatican to comment. Lennon has 60 days to appeal.
Patricia Schulte-Singleton, who leads the Endangered Catholics group that challenged the closings, called on Lennon to meet with affected parishioners and reopen the churches.
"I think it would be in his best interest as well as the diocese's best interest," she said.
The Vatican decision represents a rare instance in which Rome has reversed a U.S. bishop on the shutdown of churches. The Congregation for the Clergy ruled that Lennon failed to follow church law and procedure in the closings three years ago.
The 13 churches were among 50 shut down or merged by Lennon, who said the diocese could no longer keep them open because of declining numbers of parishioners and a shortage of priests.
The cutbacks, which left the Cleveland Diocese with 174 parishes, were prompted in part by the drop in the city's population as people moved to the suburbs — a phenomenon that has also led to church closings in other cities including Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston.
Nicholas Cafardi, who has a degree in church law and teaches at the Duquesne University law school in Pittsburgh, said the Vatican decision was a rarity because closing a church "is based on diocesan pastoral concerns that the bishop, presumably, knows better than Rome."
He said the Vatican has recently required bishops in Boston, Syracuse, N.Y., and Allentown, Pa., to keep once-closed churches open for worship.
A potentially lengthy appeal to the Vatican's top court by Lennon would pit him against the powerful church office which ruled against him, she said.
Ildiko Korossy, 69, a member of the Hungarian-language St. Emeric Church, said she was concerned that the Vatican ruling wasn't the end of the dispute.
"It's good news in one way but then it's sweet and bitter in a way because what if the bishop appeals it? And I'm hoping he doesn't," she said.
FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based coalition which lobbies for a stronger voice for lay Catholics, called on Lennon to skip any appeal and restore affected parishes.
"We hope the diocese will reach out to appealing parishioners and reconcile by engaging them in the planning to restore them to their parish homes," Sister Chris Schenk, leader of FutureChurch, said in an email statement.
"This has gone on too long. Cleveland Catholics need to heal and begin rebuilding positive relationships with diocesan leadership," the statement said. "This would go a long way toward restoring credibility and confidence in the bishop."
The eight-county Cleveland diocese, 23rd largest in the U.S., has about 710,000 Catholics, 27 percent of the overall population.