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St. Bernadette parish won’t sue diocese to avert losing its school

Any hope by parishioners of St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Orchard Park for a legal challenge to the decision by the Diocese of Buffalo to close their school likely ended Friday night.

In an emotional talk highly critical of the diocese, the Rev. Paul Seil told about 100 people at a meeting in the school that after consulting legal advice and despite his opposition to the closure, the parish will not participate in a lawsuit.

The church’s pastor characterized the process of choosing which Catholic schools would close as “flawed” by “dishonesty, deceit, politics and other elements.” He maintained that St. Bernadette’s met the diocese’s requirements to remain open. He also explained that he did everything he could to reverse the decision.

However, he told the parishioners that even if a lengthy legal challenge succeeded, the school would still close, considering that teachers and families with students already are looking elsewhere for new jobs and schools.

“We need to accept the reality we are dealing with,” Seil said.

Bishop Richard J. Malone in January announced 10 elementary school closures in the suburbs, primarily the Southtowns. The closures, the result of declines in enrollment, ended months of speculation about which schools will accept students for the 2014-15 academic year.

But the decision also aroused opposition, with some area Catholics fighting to keep their schools open.

Parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Church in the City of Tonawanda, for instance, have written a formal appeal of the decision shutting down their school, and if Malone doesn’t reconsider, they plan to press their case with the Vatican.

Parents at St. Bernadette’s organized and funded an effort to file a lawsuit against the bishop and diocese, seeking a stay in State Supreme Court of the closure decision until the Vatican can rule on the matter.

The legal case – it is based on state religious corporation law – argues that Malone violated the law by not convening the St. Bernadette’s board of trustees to consider the school closing.

“We felt we had a really good case,” said Mary Scarpello, who was involved in the parishioner legal effort and expressed disappointment at Seil’s decision not to go forward with the suit.

The only people with legal standing to file such a lawsuit are the members of the church board of trustees, and it would require a majority to do that, Seil and others said. The five-member board consists of Malone, the vicar-general of the Diocese of Buffalo, Seil and two lay parishioners of the church.

This puts pastors in a difficult position.

They must respond to demands for action from parishioners while obeying the bishop, as required by their vows as diocesan priests.

Some parishioners at Friday’s meeting reacted angrily, telling Seil that he allowed the bishop to violate the law and urging him to sign on to a legal challenge.

“File the lawsuit. We are this close,” said one parishioner as he held his thumb close to his forefinger.

Others questioned their faith in the diocese.

Still others acknowledged the dilemma and praised Seil for working hard to save the school and having the courage to criticize the diocese.

“The pastor’s public opposition to the bishop is not something to be taken lightly,” a church member said.

Seil, who voiced support for those parents who might want to pursue legal action on their own, ended the meeting with a prayer but not before a more down-to-earth comment.

“Sometimes you have to eat some dirt in life, and that is what I am doing,” he said. “And you too.”