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Vatican OKs hospital sale over Rigali objections

With an unsolicited go-ahead from the Vatican, St. Louis University completed Feb. 24 the controversial sale of its teaching hospital to Tenet Healthcare Corp., a private, for-profit hospital chain.

Ending a five-month standoff between St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali and university president, Jesuit Fr. Lawrence Biondi, the Vatican declined to support Rigali and other powerful U.S. prelates who vigorously and publicly opposed the sale.

In conveying its approval on Feb. 18, the Vatican also got in its licks at the Jesuits by directing the order to assume greater control of the university’s board of trustees and of president Biondi, to ensure compliance with canon law.

In a six-page news release issued Feb. 24, emphasizing points he has made repeatedly, Rigali said that St. Louis University -- like many U.S. Catholic institutions that have transferred ownership to lay boards -- has never formally severed ties with the Vatican and so remains subject to church control. “Any canonical opinion that negates this is unacceptable,” he said.

The university had argued that Vatican approval was unnecessary because the school was no longer church property. That view was upheld by some canon lawyers. Meanwhile, Jesuit officials in Rome have been negotiating to resolve the potentially bitter standoff, which began when the sale was announced in early October.

Rigali said in his news release that he now accepts the $300 million sale. At a news conference, he said he and Biondi “call each other friends.”

However, Rigali chided Biondi for waiting until after conflicts became public to announce that the deal would save the university’s medical school.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Rigali said, “First we were told that the medical school would not last 10 years without the extra $100 million. Then later we were told the medical school would only last six years, then two years.”

The university operates one of five Catholic medical schools in the country.

In addition to paying $300 million for hospital assets, Tenet has committed $100 million to a development corporation, equally owned by Tenet and the university, to enhance health education and services in the St. Louis area. Tenet also agreed to invest $50 million over five years to maintain the hospital’s status as a teaching institution and to provide a $1.5 million endowment for a chair in health care ethics.

The nearest competing offer, favored by Rigali because it would have allowed the hospital to remain Catholic, was for $200 million. It came from a consortium of Catholic hospitals.

Rigali’s statement gave his perspectives on the sale and detailed his discussions in Rome with Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, superior-general of the Society of Jesus, and with Vatican officials. Rigali said Kolvenbach had in January requested Vatican clarification of the university’s canonical status and had been assured that it was church property. Vatican officials then sought and received assurances from Kolvenbach that four conditions would be included in the final sale agreement.

On Feb. 18, Cardinal Eduardo Martínez Somalo, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Religious Life, and Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect for the Congregation for Catholic Education, told Kolvenbach that permission had been granted for the sale.

The university noted in its own news release that it has no problem with the the four conditions, because they were all contained in the original October sale agreement. They are as follows:

  • Tenet will observe Catholic principles and practices of health care and provide for spiritual needs at the hospital.
  • All students, interns and residents will follow U.S. bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services.
  • Tenet will care for the poor at the same level as the hospital has in the past.
  • Tenet will continue existing education programs in pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology in accord with those at other Catholic hospitals.

Rigali said in his statement, “I regret that a solution involving Catholic partnership was not able to be had.” He added: “I look forward to collaborating with the Jesuit authorities, the board of trustees and Fr. Biondi in order to strengthen St. Louis University’s Catholic identity and its institutional relationship with the Catholic church, as well as its ability to serve effectively the needs of the entire community.”

Other U.S. prelates who have spoken out against selling to a for-profit firm are Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston, John O’Connor of New York and James Hickey of Washington.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has approved terms of the sale.

National Catholic Reporter, March 6, 1998