CLEVELAND (AP) -- The Vatican has taken the extraordinary step of overruling the closing of 13 parishes by the Cleveland Diocese, a lawyer who fought the cutbacks said Wednesday.
The move represents a rare instance in which Rome has reversed a U.S. bishop on the shutdown of churches.
The Congregation of the Clergy ruled last week that Bishop Richard Lennon had failed to follow procedure in the closings three years ago, attorney Peter Borre said.
The 13 Roman Catholic churches were among 50 shut down or merged by Lennon, who said the eight-county diocese could no longer afford to keep them open because of declining numbers of parishioners and a shortage of priests.
Most of the 13 parishes are in Cleveland itself, many in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Many had been founded by Irish, Hungarian or Polish immigrants, some in neighborhoods that are now heavily black and non-Catholic.
Parishioners, many of them second- and third-generation members of the churches, challenged some of the closings and reacted with sit-ins and other protests and the creation of a breakaway congregation.
Diocesan spokesman Robert Tayek said the diocese hadn't been informed of the decisions and declined to comment. Borre said bishops are typically notified by mail sent by diplomatic channels through the papal envoy in Washington.
The bishop can appeal to the Vatican's high court. It was not clear whether he could simply restart the process, correct the procedural errors and close the churches all over again. Nor was it clear where the diocese would find the money to operate the churches if it were to lose.
From time to time, the Vatican has intervened on behalf of parishioners trying to save their churches, but Borre said this was the first such reversal he could recall going back to at least 1990.
The cutbacks, which left the diocese with 174 parishes in all, 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 such cities as Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston. Cleveland's population has fallen 17 percent to just under 400,000 since 2000, and the number of Catholics in the diocese has declined from 797,000 to 710,000 since 2007.
Borre said that he received the rulings from Rome on three closings and that he had direct knowledge that 10 others had been overturned.
The diocese has begun selling its closed churches, with some bought by other denominations, charter schools and a drug rehab center, and has netted more than $19 million on 26 of them so far. But the sale of churches was put on hold in cases where the closings were challenged.
Parish and school closings have been a contentious issue in America's Catholic dioceses for decades, prompted by a shift in population from cities to suburbs and from the Northeast to the Sunbelt, as well as by declining Mass attendance, a priest shortage and financial pressures.
In the last decade, as the child-molestation crisis eroded trust in the bishops, American Catholics have increasingly challenged decisions by local church leaders to merge or shut parishes, whether through appeals to the Vatican or demonstrations.
In Cleveland, the shut-down churches have been locked up, and in some cases have begun to show signs of disrepair. At. St. Emeric, orange cones and rope fill a gap in a front-door railing. At St. Patrick, some gravestones at the adjacent cemetery are broken. Amid the graves, a white and green "Save St. Pat's" placard stood Wednesday.
Jay Lindsay reported from Boston. AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll also contributed to this report