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 Vatican office known as the Congregation for the Clergy ruled last week that Bishop Richard Lennon failed to follow church law and procedure in the closings three years ago, attorney Peter Borre told The Associated Press.
The 13 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.
Many of the 13 parishes are in poor, inner-city Cleveland neighborhoods. Some were founded by Irish, Hungarian or Polish immigrants but are now in sections of the city that are heavily black and non-Catholic.
Parishioners, many of them second- and third-generation members of the churches, challenged some of the closings, staged sit-ins and other protests and even created a breakaway congregation.
Lennon received documents on the case Wednesday from the Vatican but had not yet reviewed them and could not confirm their contents or otherwise comment on them, spokesman Robert Tayek said.
The bishop can appeal to the Vatican's high court. It was not clear whether he could simply restart the process, follow the correct procedure and close the churches all over again. Nor was it clear how big a financial burden the churches would be if the bishop were forced to keep them open. However, the diocese said in its most recent annual report that its finances are "robust."
From time to time, the Vatican has intervened on behalf of parishioners trying to save their churches, but Borre said this was the first actual reversal by the Congregation for the Clergy that he could recall over the past two decades.
"The Vatican seems to be reminding us that there're people involved here and people's spiritual lives," said the Rev. Patrick Lagges, a canon lawyer at the Archdiocese of Chicago.
The cutbacks, which left the Cleveland 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 learned that 10 others had also been overturned. In invalidating the closings, the Vatican cited such reasons as the bishop's failure to consult his priest advisers and to issue a formal decree.
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 past 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. Many of those appeals are still pending.
Jule Rice, a non-Catholic whose house faces the back fence of Cleveland's St. Barbara, said the church was an anchor in the neighborhood, once populated by Polish-Americans who worked at the steel plant down the hill.
"The church does more than services," she said. "With the meals and the counseling, especially for marriage and pre-marriage, all that stuff, and youth in trouble _ very, very, important in an urban setting like this, with all the negative influences."
The shut-down Cleveland churches have been locked up, and in some cases have begun to show signs of disrepair. The wrought iron "St. Barbara" sign above the door is rusting, the first-floor windows on the parish house next door are boarded up, and the parking lot is padlocked.
Jay Lindsay reported from Boston. AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York and Associated Press Writer JoAnne Viviano in Columbus also contributed to this report.