Massachusetts judge orders protesters to end 11-year vigil at closed church

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A Massachusetts judge ordered parishioners of the former St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church to end their 11-year protest vigil and vacate the shuttered Roman Catholic church Thursday.

However, the Friends of St. Frances, a group that has been occupying the Scituate church every day since 2004, said they are not going anywhere. They intend to ask the state court to stay the ruling pending an appeal.

"As of today, nothing changes," Jon Rogers, one of the organizers, declared late Thursday. "From Day One, we made a promise that we would exhaust every appeal that was available to us, and that includes the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary."

The Archdiocese of Boston, which had already sued to evict the group, urged the protesters to end the vigil and respect the judge’s ruling, which it called “clear and thoughtful.” In a statement, the diocese invited protesters to “participate and join in the fullness of parish life.”

Norfolk County Superior Court Judge Edward Leibensperger declared in his ruling that the former parishioners were “unlawfully and intentionally” trespassing on the church and said they would be barred from the property effective May 29.

The ruling followed a one-day bench trial earlier this month in which lawyers for the archdiocese argued the group was trespassing on church property. Lawyers for the group argued that the group had a right to occupy the space and that church law must be considered in the case.

Leibensperger disputed that notion. "The right to control access to one's property invokes no ecclesiastic issue," he wrote in his 16-page ruling. "An owner of a property has clear and unequivocal interest, supported by property law, to prevent uninvited and unsupervised persons from being inside the building."

Rogers, the protest organizer, called the ruling and the abbreviated trial "incredibly disappointing."

"This is not just about us. This is about all the churches," he said. "What this ruling says is that our houses of worship are not ours and that we're just invited guests. We don't believe that's right. We've been told our whole lives that these churches are ours. This is our spiritual home."

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church was among dozens of parishes closed as part of a controversial plan to restructure Boston’s Archdiocese’s debt.

Opponents had said the closures were the archdiocese's way of paying for clergy sex abuse settlements, a charge the church has repeatedly denied. The archdiocese blamed the closures on falling attendance, a priest shortage and financial problems.

The Friends of St. Frances have been occupying the now-deconsecrated space since October 2004, with at least one former parishioner holding vigil in the space day and night and supporters holding Sunday services.

The group has sought a number of ways to save the church, from appealing to higher church authorities and the Vatican for relief, as well as a civil suit that was ultimately dismissed.

The archdiocese, which is led by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, had given the group until March 9 to leave. When it refused, the archdiocese took them to court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.