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CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Vatican has given a group of imperiled area churches reason to hope and pray on.

At least five churches ordered closed by Bishop Richard Lennon received letters from Rome this week alerting them that the deadline for the evaluation of their appeals had been extended.

The news buoyed spirits among members of St. James in Lakewoodand the Cleveland churches of St. Patrick (West Park)St. EmericSt. Wendelin and St. Peter, five of the 10 parishes in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese that are appealing the bishop’s order to close.

Patricia Schulte-Singleton, the leader of a lay coalition called Endangered Catholics, said she expects the five other appealing churches to receive the same letter from the Congregation for the Clergy, which has the power to review the bishop’s decision-making.

This marks the third time the Vatican panel has given itself more time to review the cases from Cleveland. All of the appealing churches have been closed and they no longer hold masses, although people still gather outside of some of them to pray.

“We find this encouraging,” said Schulte-Singleton. “It’s not a denial. It extends the process. It holds up any sale of the property.”

Schulte-Singleton is also a leader of the Save St. Pat’s Committee. The 1,100-family parish on the far West Side of Cleveland was considered to have one of the strongest appeals.

A cluster committee was instructed to help the diocese decide which one of four churches in St. Pat’s cluster of parishes should close. After nearly two years of study, the committee recommended that St. Pat’s and Our Lady of Angels survive and that Annunciation and Ascension merge into a new parish.

Lennon disregarded that recommendation and said he intended to close a second church in the cluster, which he would name later. Members of St. Patrick were shocked by his closing decree in May 2009 and they asked the bishop to reconsider.

The bishop denied their appeal, citing a technicality. He wrote that parishioners should have appealed his earlier decision to close a second, unnamed church and that the deadline to appeal that decision had passed.

Bewildered and bitter, parishioners appealed to the Vatican, their last recourse under church law. The letter from Rome, dated July 2, states only that “it has been necessary to extend the time limits” of the appeal process.

The Cleveland Catholic Diocese responded on its website Tuesday. “This simply means that the Congregation of Clergy is giving itself a longer period of time to consider the appeal of the now closed church,” the statement reads.

An expert in canon law agreed that the appealing parishes should not draw too much solace from the extension. Peter Borre, who became an adviser to imperiled parishes after fighting to save churches in Boston, said he recently returned from Vatican City and a visit to the Congregation for the Clergy.

“They are overwhelmed with appeals from American parishes, and this is especially the case with Cleveland,” he said. “The fact the congregation gives itself an extension has nothing to do with the merits of the appeal, and it is misguided to conclude that salvation is at hand.”

Borre noted, however, that most extensions are for 90 days. He found it “unusual” that St. Patrick and at least three other appealing parishes in the Cleveland diocese received five-month extensions, until Nov. 30.

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