An excellent essay on fiscal diocesan responsibility appears in the October 28 edition of Commonweal with special attention to the lay organization VOTF, or “Voices of the Faithful.” VOTF was founded in 2002 in response to the Boston Globe’s unveiling of the dimensions of the clerical abuse crisis. Since its founding VOTF has served as something of a watchdog for the proper exercise of Church authority in matters of clerical abuse of minors, and its advocacy has centered upon transparency, or the clear and open flow of information to the Church at large. In 2017 VOTF focused its attention on the cost of the abuse crisis in actual dollars. There is nothing cold-blooded about such an inquiry; Commonweal agrees with the VOTF assertion that if Catholics in the pew had any idea of how much money their dioceses were spending in lawsuits, attorneys’ fees, and the care of abuse victims, they [as well as any competent outside observers such as the news media, child protective services, and law enforcement] would have been alerted much earlier to the widespread on-going nature of the problem, to the degree that many instances of abuse in this century might have been avoided.
VOTF undertook this study about the same way you would: it scanned the internet, or more specifically, the websites of all the dioceses in the United States, numbering 177. What this investigation uncovered is the reality that nearly half of the dioceses of the United States [47%] do not make any financial disclosures to the Catholics who comprise those dioceses. The Commonweal story provides links in which you can research what is or is not available from your own diocese in terms of financial information. As luck would have it, the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, declared bankruptcy earlier this week. Bishop John Quinn, in his public statement on the proceedings, assured his people that the Church’s business would go on as usual. Survivors would be compensated through a “combination of insurance, savings, money from the sale of assets, and “other sources” per a diocesan spokesman.
Is “other sources” a code word these days for our Sunday collection plates? A diocese will go to considerable pain, particularly after a large and/or notorious settlement, to emphasize that no funds from the Sunday collections are being diverted toward abuse settlement payment or other related costs. Objectively speaking, though, it is impossible to claim that such cases have no impact across the board, financially speaking, on every parish and institution in a diocese. The best estimates from CARA and other respected sources puts the national cost of clerical abuse at $4 billion as of 2015, with the understanding that this is a minimal figure. Settled claims with non-disclosure clauses are not factored into the math.
Using the $4 billion figure, we are looking at an average loss of $25,000,000 per diocese over the years. But again, there is yet another peculiar twist to the numbers. It is unknown how many Catholics stopped or reduced donating to their local parishes and dioceses since 2002, the first wave of media coverage of clerical abuse. The anecdotal stories, carried in local or national media outlets, tend toward belief in a decline in giving. The 2015 Ruhl Study summary outlines how hard it is to measure not just diocesan costs to date but also what researcher Jack Ruhl calls “opportunity costs incurred.” Every dollar spent, every hour devoted toward resolution of a crisis is money and personal time diverted from productive investment, in our discussion that would be fiscal solvency and the good works for Catholic institutions, such as Catholic school support and outreach to the poor. My own crude math, based upon statistics gathered in this post, indicates that the average loss per diocese calculates to $25 million, though there are wild swings in the per diocese amount.
Another factor to consider is the civil structure of dioceses in the United States and elsewhere. Dioceses are established as “corporations sole,” meaning one sole person—the bishop--owns everything the diocese has. This structure was established in our country in the 1800’s when parishes were known to refuse the keys to a new pastor, often of a different ethnic background, that they did not want. The generic title for such controversies was trusteeism, where civil authorities recognized lay boards as the corporate spokespersons for a parish. Gradually the American bishops reclaimed full control of all resources and decision making in their dioceses by restructuring dioceses as corporations sole.
Corporation sole has a theological justification, as a diocesan bishop is the pastor of his entire diocese and the ultimate steward of all material goods. In future posts I will talk about the kinds of expenses a diocese incurs that would never occur to most Catholics, such as the care of elderly priests without family. The corporate structure of a diocese has several operational advantages such as negotiating insurance coverages for its employees. Curiously, neither Vatican II nor the new Code of Canon Law  added any strong measures of episcopal oversight by laity. Canon Law mandates a diocesan finance board, but its function is advisory, not deliberative, and in my experience most laymen are too eager to rubber stamp the enthusiasms of bishops.
Bishops do make mistakes, and I am not referencing the clerical abuse crisis here. My last pastorate was a modest sized inner-city parish that worked mightily to keep its elementary school well-attended and highly regarded. Fifteen years after I left the parish the sitting bishop decided to build a rather elegant new church on the edge of the city. He made three major errors: (1) he banked on what he believed was a wave of new housing construction on the horizon; (2) unlike his predecessors, he authorized the parish to take on an exorbitant amount of debt; and (3) many of the parishioners prefer the older church in the city to this day, which continues use as a going concern. I might add here that the bishop approved the new construction in 2008. Corporation sole is not infallible.
Coming next: (1) a closer look at parish and diocesan fiscal cooperation and (2) how to manage your own giving for best utilization in the Kingdom of God.
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