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Nuns’ filings intensify fight over sale of their convent to pop singer

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LOS ANGELES » Poverty, chastity, obedience – and they are still barring the door to Katy Perry.

In a pair of legal filings Friday, two nuns who object to Perry’s proposed purchase of their order’s convent on 8 acres here disclosed an email describing any sale to the saucy pop singer as a breach of their sacred vows.

"In selling to Katy Perry, we feel we are being forced to violate our canonical vows to the Catholic Church," Sister Catherine Rose Holzman wrote to an official of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on May 22, as competing deals for the property, valued at about $15 million, were being considered.

Whether the Los Feliz-area Mediterranean villa and acreage go to Perry or to her rival, the developer Dana Hollister, may depend on a decision by Judge Robert H. O’Brien of Superior Court in Los Angeles County. O’Brien is expected to consider arguments in a case filed against Hollister by Josi H. Gomez, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, at a hearing July 30.

Friday’s filings by Holzman, 86, and Sister Rita Callanan, 77, include a memorandum opposing the archbishop, and declarations peppered with intimate details about church dealings. They add heat to a dispute that is complicated by a possible clash between canon and civil law, and the decision by the nuns to reveal their distaste for Perry in public interviews late last month.

The court papers include claims by several of five surviving nuns in the Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary that the archdiocese is betraying them and bullying them into supporting a sale other than their preferred transaction with Hollister.

That deal would pay about $10 million for the convent, but with little cash up front, while giving the archdiocese more than $5 million to buy out its long-term lease on a retreat house for priests that also occupies the hillside plot on Waverly Drive. Under its terms, the nuns contend in their filings, they would directly control the proceeds, rather than having them administered by officials of the archdiocese.

Their rejection of Perry’s slightly lower cash offer – under diocesan control – now borders on schism. Their filings included a letter titled "How the Chancery Stole Waverly," which was sent to the archbishop June 13 by Sister Jean-Marie Dunne, 88, who previously filed a declaration supporting the sale to Perry and did not join in Friday’s action.

After a litany of objections to the archdiocese’s attempt to assert control over the nuns’ civil nonprofit, Dunne’s letter concluded: "All of the above would and should have been avoided if the chancery personnel possessed a modicum of humility and honesty."

Instead, she added, "they seem obsessed with their misconception of their sovereign, ecclesiastical canonical importance." (She later suggested that the archdiocese "even the score" by putting $3 million in the Immaculate Heart bank account.)

Representatives of the archdiocese have argued that their only concern is to get the best deal for a now-dispersed group of aging nuns, who would continue to own the proceeds of any sale. Under the terms of Perry’s deal, those would include a new priestly retreat house in the Pasadena area – though Callanan and Holzman say they view ownership of that house as a liability.

"I would like to reiterate my continued commitment to all of the Immaculate Heart sisters that the archdiocese will take care of them and ensure their well-being now and in the future," Gomez said in a statement on Saturday.

Like Dunne, Sister Marie Victoriano, 88, and Sister Marie Christine Muqoz Lopez, 82, have filed declarations in support of the archbishop. But Callanan and Holzman, in a filing prepared by the lawyers from the Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtingher law firm, a Hollywood powerhouse, have questioned the validity of at least the Dunne and Lopez declarations.

Dunne, they noted, expressed opposition to the sale both before and after signing her statement, and Lopez, they said, was observed to be "woozy" and under the influence of morphine at about the time church officials asked her for a declaration of support.

Victoriano said in an email Sunday, "I have great confidence in the archbishop’s decision and have no concern whatsoever."

Dunne did not respond to an email query Sunday. Lopez could not be reached at her home in a Los Angeles care facility. The five nuns have been living separately since leaving their convent, which was acquired from a benefactor, Daniel J. Donohue, in 1971.

J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, disputes claims that the declarations of support were improperly secured.

O’Brien is now being asked to decide whether the archdiocese relied too heavily on canon law in taking control of the nuns’ temporal affairs, without meeting the demands of civil law. Hennigan said the archdiocese in no way neglected civil requirements. The Vatican, he added, has clearly decreed that no sister or group of sisters should be involved in the governance of their nonprofit.

It is clear that several of the nuns do not trust the promises of care. Callanan and Holzman say the archdiocese misappropriated a final bequest of $250,000 from Donohue, who died in 2014, and has failed in its obligation to maintain the retreat house.

According to Hennigan, the Donohue bequest is invested in the sisters’ behalf. He said the archdiocese had requested, but had not received, an invoice for any money owed for the retreat house upkeep.

In a deposition last Monday, Hollister acknowledged that she had received a deed from the sisters in return for a $100,000 cash payment, more than half of which they used to cover a transfer tax, and a $9.9 million note. The note, she agreed, did not require her to start making $300,000 annually accruing interest payments until 2018. But she said she would honor oral commitments to begin paying sooner.

In any case, Friday’s filings serve as a declaration of independence by women for whom a vow of obedience stops short of a sale to Perry.

"Though we sisters have aged, diminished in number and are not as physically healthy as we once were," Callanan wrote in her declaration, "we remain self-sufficient and we have continued to govern our affairs."

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