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Behind stained glass
By keeping its financial records in the dark, the Boston archdiocese shows it still hasn’t learned all the lessons of the scandal that rocked it three years ago

IT HAS BEEN more than three years since the clergy-sexual-abuse scandal erupted in the Catholic Church, yet there are troubling signs that the powerful men of the Boston archdiocese still think the laity was outraged only by the acts of abuse. They can’t seem to get it into their heads that parishioners also were appalled by the secrecy, the obfuscation, the flat obstinacy with which diocesan leaders guarded the internal workings of the Church — and, not incidentally, what they do with the money collected each week at Sunday services.

That’s money the parishes and the archdiocese desperately need, since contributions have declined as costs have risen in the wake of the abuse blow-up. It’s also money that parishioners here and nationally are still reluctant to hand over. And now the Church is finding that its financial murkiness is beginning to trouble the flock just as much as have the sexual shenanigans of its priests.

In fact, when asked to name the greatest influence on their financial support of the Church in the past year, almost as many regular-Mass-attending Catholics now cite financial-accountability concerns as cite the sexual-abuse scandal. That’s according to a national survey released last week by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA), a consortium representing $200 million worth of Catholic philanthropy. FADICA also found, amazingly, that more Catholics now approve of their bishops’ handling of the abuse crisis (41 percent, up from 35 percent two years ago) than approve those same bishops’ handling of Church-finance accountability (38 percent, down from 46 percent). Large majorities in the survey want the Church to be more open and accountable with its finances.

"I think the clergy-abuse scandal opened people’s eyes to how little they know about church operations," says Charles Zech, of the Center for the Study of Church Management, at Villanova University. "That’s going to linger on long after the scandal subsides."

In theory, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has addressed both issues. The measures it has taken on abuse, however, have been more open and substantive. An independent compliance audit by Gavin Group, a Boston auditing firm, of the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was able to report that "all bishops ... in the United States cooperated with the compliance audits" and "nearly every diocese and eparchy audited is compliant with most articles of the Charter."

By comparison, the USCCB hasn’t even attempted to learn how many are complying with its new standards for financial reporting, adopted in 2002. "Anecdotally, I think that about one-third of the dioceses comply with the national norms," says Frank Butler, FADICA president. Even the USCCB’s own recent attempt to report the financial impact of the abuse scandal flopped, when as many as 40 percent of dioceses failed to provide data.

"The underlying problems of secrecy, authoritarianism, and a lack of trust in the laity remain," says Steve Krueger, former executive director of Voice of the Faithful, which formed in the early months of the clergy-sexual-abuse scandal and, as one of its tactics, urged churchgoers to give the lay organization their weekly donations for temporary safekeeping. Financial accountability, Krueger says, is a bellwether that parishioners are using to measure the Church hierarchy’s ability to change. "That’s an issue that everybody can relate to. Everybody expects financial disclosure and accountability — it has become part of our society, for very good reason."

"I think they need to provide more detail," says Peter Conley, pastor of Saint Jude’s in Norfolk. "I want to know, where did that money come from and where is it going, specifically."

Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley and David W. Smith, vice-chancellor for financial affairs, have publicly claimed that the Boston archdiocese is becoming an open book. "I am committed to financial transparency," O’Malley wrote in a letter circulated last November 13. He will soon announce an expansion of his finance council, which will spend the next few months formulating a strategic financial plan for the archdiocese, says spokesperson Kelly Lynch.

But parishioners who are watching churches close, reading pleas for generosity, and hearing promises of where the money is and isn’t going, may still feel as if the Church is telling them, as Krueger puts it, "pray, pay, and obey."

IF THE ABUSE scandal — and the $85 million victims settlement paid out so far — prompted skepticism, the reconfiguration of the diocese pushed the laity toward paranoia. Peter Borré, chairman of the Council of Parishes, a group opposing the church closings, is one of many speculating that the archdiocese is actually worse off financially than it is letting on. They suspect O’Malley doesn’t want parishioners to know their donations are going to finance huge debts brought on by mismanagement and legal troubles. "Catholics wonder, how much of my money is in the pockets of tort lawyers?" says Butler.

Others think the exact opposite — that the Church is crying poverty to solicit donations and justify selling property. "They say they’re broke, but I don’t believe it," says Dean Hoge, director of the Life Cycle Institute at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC. "What’s their definition of broke?" Krueger has similar suspicions, pointing to parishes on the chopping block that appear to be in good financial shape, with good buildings and high participation.

Either way, O’Malley clearly underestimated the degree of skepticism his church-closings announcement would face; he eventually responded by creating a lay oversight committee to review the decisions. "In Boston, that was a classic of the wrong way of doing it, and it alienated people," says Zech. The oversight committee itself has hardly been more communicative, however. Co-chairs Sister Janet Eisner, president of Emmanuel College, and Peter Meade, executive vice-president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, both declined to speak to the Phoenix for this article, as has been their practice generally with regard to the press since they began their work for the committee.

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Issue Date: January 21 - 27, 2005
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