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New legislation determines fate of religious orders' NSW assets

New legislation in New South Wales gives Bishops wide-ranging powers to acquire assets and property belonging to religious congregations in the inevitable event of their need to "wind up" their "civil identity" as they die out.

A report in today's issue of Online Catholics raises concerns that the freedom of the Orders to dispose of their own assets "has been severely restricted".

The journal reports that the Roman Catholic Church Communities Lands Amendment Act (2001) was proclaimed into law in State Parliament on 1 October. The purpose of the Act is to provide for the winding up of the "body corporate" - the civil legal entity that permits a Catholic Order to own assets. This winding up can be either voluntary or complusory.

Most Orders have a 'civil identity' as the owner of its lands, schools, buildings and other assets. As those in the Orders grow old and the communities begin to die out, the new law allows an Order's assets to be transferred to other similar bodies as part of the winding up.

There are 133 such corporate bodies listed in New South Wales Law. Essentially, if 75% of the members agree that they should be wound up, and the Bishop consents, the entity will go out of existence. This is not the Order itself, but the entity which for the purpose of civil law owns assets.

A large order such as the Christian Brothers might own up to land titles in NSW alone. Even some smaller orders possess significant property "portfolios".

According to Hansard, the NSW legislation was supported in 2001 by the Archdiocese of Sydney, represented by the then spokesperson, Fr Brian Lucas, and the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes NSW.

A statement from the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes in NSW reveals that a joint submission from the Conference and the various Dioceses of NSW, each with their own legal advisers, was made to the Attorney General's Department in order to have the 2004 Regulation gazetted. The gazetting took place on 1 October.

Billions for Bishops in NSW windfall (Online Catholics 13/10/04)

Roman Catholic Church Communities' Lands Act
Statement: Roman Catholic Church Communities' Lands Regulation 2004 (Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes)

Carmelites sell oldest monastery in Canada (Catholic News Agency 12/10/04)
Council proposal blocks religious orders from selling off land ( 12/10/04)

13 Oct 2004