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SAN JUAN — An appeals court on Tuesday temporarily halted a judge’s ruling that ordered authorities to embargo the accounts of Puerto Rico’s Roman Catholic Church to ensure the payment of $4.7 million in teacher pensions.
The ruling was celebrated by the Archdiocese of San Juan, which announced two years ago that pensions for hundreds of current and former teachers would be eliminated because payouts exceeded contributions. It has since been fending off a lawsuit filed by dozens of teachers seeking their pension.
“I once again invite both sides to dialogue,” Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez said in a brief statement after the appeals court announced its decision.
Attorneys representing the teachers could not be immediately reached for comment.
Earlier on Tuesday, a judge ordered authorities to embargo any properties or money owned by the church, including bonds, cars and artwork.
“Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court has found that the plaintiffs are suffering irreparable damage as a result of the suspension of pension payments,” Judge Anthony Cuevas wrote in his ruling. He said the order could be carried out day or night anywhere in Puerto Rico and that locks could be broken to obtain any property owned by the church.
The archbishop has said that a board of trustees created the pension system in 1979 as a “work of charity” and that teachers were not asked to contribute. The system relied on 80 schools that were operating at the time, and nearly half have since closed, he said.
“The closure of Catholic schools during the decade of the 1980s was unthinkable,” Gonzalez said.
Puerto Rico is mired in an 11-year recession that has sparked an exodus of nearly half a million people to the U.S. mainland in the past decade and forced hundreds of private and public schools to close.
The economic crisis also has placed a spotlight on the government’s public pension system, which has accumulated nearly $50 billion in liabilities. A federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances is seeking a 10 percent cut to that system, but the government has so far refused.