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Phoenix parishes to be separate corporations

PHOENIX, Ariz. (The Catholic Sun) - The Phoenix Diocese is undertaking a comprehensive restructuring process so that its civil organization matches the one already in place canonically.

Currently, the diocese is a corporate sole — a legal entity consisting of a single incorporated office occupied by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. From now through July 1, Church leaders will be preparing each individual parish to become a separate, non-profit corporation.

Little will change in day-to-day parish operations, according to diocesan officials.

“While this is a civil restructuring, we cannot forget who we are as Church,” said Fr. Fred Adamson, vicar general and moderator of the Curia. “The way the Church structures itself provides a great deal of autonomy at the parish level to minister to the local needs of the people of God.”

Under the current civil structure, Bishop Olmsted is listed as the property owner of all parish assets in trust for the given parish. But in actual practice, as prescribed by canon law, the pastor makes almost all decisions at the parish level.

“Right now we don’t present ourselves in the secular world in a way that is true to our own understanding,” said Fr. Chris Fraser, the diocese’s judicial vicar and a canon law expert.

Spiritual exercise

The restructuring will, in effect, make the pastor president of a non-profit corporation — the parish. Each parish will control its own property, in communion with the bishop.

“We want to be able to communicate and enter into relationships civilly that reflect who we believe ourselves to be,” Fr. Fraser added.

In addition to better defining itself civilly, Fr. Adamson explained that the restructuring offers the local Church an opportunity to better understand the fundamental principles that underlie canon law.

“It’s more than a civil exercise,” he said. “It’s a spiritual exercise that will allow us to better understand who Christ established us to be.”

Understanding the Church means understanding the different roles its members play, Fr. Adamson said.

“It’s a further clarification of the way we function on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “You cannot have a relationship with Christ without having a relationship with His Church.”

Bishop Olmsted, whose former dioceses in Wichita, Kan., and Lincoln, Neb., had separately incorporated parishes, initiated the restructuring process for the Phoenix Diocese in 2004. He established a task force to study the issue the following year.

Trend across the nation

When the Phoenix Diocese was founded in 1969, the corporate sole model was widely used by many dioceses, and the Phoenix Diocese followed suit. Since that time, however, many dioceses across the country have reorganized their parishes as separate corporations.

The Diocese of Tucson, for example, took the opportunity to restructure its parishes after it filed for bankruptcy in 2005. Other dioceses have similarly reorganized their parishes, both within and outside of the context of bankruptcy.

“Unlike some of the dioceses who have embarked upon this process, there is no specific event or court case or other impending deadline that is pushing us to do this,” said John Kelly, general counsel for the Phoenix Diocese. “We are taking this step after years of study, consultation and prayer over which model most correctly expresses the true identity of our parishes under civil law.”

He said Phoenix had a lot in common with the Archdiocese of Detroit in that respect. “Like the Archdiocese of Detroit, we are embarking on this change for a very positive reason — because the parish incorporation model is more accurate than the corporate sole model when it comes to describing the working relationships that already exist in the diocese,” Kelly said.

Separate incorporation should also provide a benefit to the parishes, since the current corporate sole structure puts one parish’s resources at risk for another’s negligence, Fr. Fraser said.

“It’s irresponsible for us not to do this for the various liability issues,” he said. The new structure “safeguards the goods of the Church that are given for service.”

Discussion on the process

Representatives from the Diocesan Pastor Center will be meeting with parish leaders in the coming weeks about the restructuring process. A 45-minute presentation will be followed by a question-and-answer session.

The diocesan Web site will also feature in-depth information about the process, said Caryn Meron, director of the Office of Research, Planning and Parish Services.

“I don’t think you’ll see a heartbeat skip. Things will stay the same,” Meron said about parish support from the downtown Phoenix pastoral center. “It might be an opportunity for parishes to take more advantage of the services that we provide.”

After July 1, the day the restructuring paperwork is submitted to the state, the diocese will go from one to more than 100 civil entities, Kelly said.

For more information see the related story on Catholic Online, "FAQs on Phoenix restructuring plan."

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