Several Twin Cities Catholic priests have taken the unusual step of hiring their own attorney to address potential liability from clergy abuse lawsuits and have invited all 200-some parishes in the archdiocese to consider doing the same.

"Since the interests of the individual parishes are distinct from those of the Archdiocese, we believe that it is prudent for the parishes to have their own representation," said a letter sent to St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese parishes last week.

The letter was signed by the Rev. Kevin Finnegan of Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina and the Rev. David Hennen of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church of Hastings. Priests who previously served in both churches have been identified as child sex abusers.

Finnegan and Hennen invited all pastors, administrators and trustees to attend a December meeting with White Bear Lake bankruptcy attorney Mary Jo Jensen-Carter, whom they have retained.

"We are just looking at our options," said Finnegan.

The move is the latest response to financial strains in the archdiocese, which is facing more than 20 child abuse lawsuits. Last week, the archdiocese announced a $9.1 million operating loss and said it was weighing whether to file bankruptcy.

The archdiocese supports the parishes' efforts, said Joe Kueppers, chancellor for civil affairs.

"They should all have competent legal advice to protect their own interests,'' said Kueppers.

Charles Reid, a canon lawyer at the University of St. Thomas, said he had heard of parishes quietly consulting attorneys over the months, but the scope and public nature of this legal endeavor surprised him.

"It's further evidence of a lack of confidence [in the archdiocese],'' he said. "But it's also a perfectly legitimate thing to do."

Parish liability

Clergy abuse lawsuits, both in Minnesota and nationally, have been filed against dioceses and archdioceses — not individual parishes. The chancery is where the personnel decisions were made, and where the finances are strongest, attorneys say.

Catholic parishes and schools are separate legal entities, and their property and buildings are not considered archdiocese assets available to tap during bankruptcy proceedings, said Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

However, parish savings and assets that are co-mingled with the archdiocese can be at risk, Zech said. For example, there is a savings account held in most archdioceses, called parish demand deposit accounts, that parishes can deposit money in, and also take loans from.

Parish funds in a similar account in Wilmington, Del., which also filed for bankruptcy, were considered assets of the diocese, he said.

Meanwhile in Spokane, Wash., the roughly 80 parishes were asked to foot $1 million of the $20 million settlement. Each parish was assessed differently, depending on its size and assets, he said.

Priest pension funds — though not directly tied to the parish — were seized in Wilmington and Boston, he said.

In the Milwaukee archdiocese, which filed for bankruptcy in 2011, determining which — if any — parish holdings were archdiocese assets was an early priority for the court.

"That was one of the first issues that had to be resolved here," said Ralph Anzivino, a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "The judge ruled that the assets of the parish belonged to the parish."

Neither Zech nor Anzivino was aware of a situation where every parish had been encouraged to seek their own legal counsel. But they believed that proactive action by Twin Cities parishes was prudent.

Want to be prepared

Jensen-Carter, the attorney hired by the parishes, said her clients' organizing efforts were "nothing separate'' from what the chancery was doing.

"No one is trying to go off and do their own thing," she said. "The parishes just want to be prepared for what will happen, be it bankruptcy or global settlement.''

Kueppers said one task for parishes would be to find their insurance policies from the period when the clergy abuse occurred. Those policies, now stored in many church basements, could be tapped as part of any future action against the parishes, he said.

For now, no parish in the Twin Cities has been named in an abuse lawsuit, Kueppers said. But some parishes have received "notices of claims,'' he said, which can be a precursor to legal action.

Attorney Jeff Anderson, who has filed more than 20 lawsuits against the archdiocese for clergy abuse, said he does not want to disrupt the "good work of parishes.''

"I still hold hope we can do this in an innovative way that hasn't been done before," he said.

Two meetings with Jensen-Carter have been scheduled, on Dec. 2 and Dec. 11. It's unclear how many priests and parish leaders will attend.

Jennifer Haselberger, the archdiocese whistleblower who exposed clergy abuse practices, said she believed the priests had taken a bold move, "assuming that they have not been encouraged by the Chancery — which is still unclear — and that this is not just another ploy for the archdiocese to avoid its responsibilities.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612 673-4511