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Church in Crisis

Lay leaders urge financial transparency


Two Catholic laymen in different parts of this city have a common take on the crisis facing the U.S. Catholic church and a strong stake in designing a fix that will stick -- one that doesn’t include secrecy.

From the window of his 11th-floor New York Avenue office, one block east of the White House, attorney Robert Bennett -- defender of presidents, cabinet secretaries and members of Congress -- enjoys an unobstructed line of sight to the Washington Monument and the best view of the U.S. Treasury Department this side of the $10 bill.

Brooklyn-born Bennett was appointed by the U.S. bishops in June under the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” to the 13-member National Review Board charged with overseeing the charter’s implementation.

“The old way got us into this crisis,” said Bennett, “so maybe a little bit of sunlight -- and the views and hard work of people who have no agenda at all other than to help the church in this crisis -- may be a good thing.”

Just two subway stops away on the Red Line, Francis Butler is ensconced in the pleasant if less prestigious Connecticut Avenue offices of the organization he has headed for 23 years, Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, FADICA. Comments the 57-year-old Butler, “The culture of secrecy led to this crisis in the first place.”

Butler walks both sides of the church charitable giving aisle: with wealthy Catholics who want their riches to serve the church’s mission, and with prelates to whom they frequently entrust those funds.

In June, the foundation urged the bishops to embrace “clear and transparent financial disclosure” in their dioceses. “It is imperative,” Butler said in a letter to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, “that the church’s leadership embrace a uniform policy of financial transparency.” At their November meeting, the bishops ignored the foundation’s plea for openness, at least in their public sessions. They might not be able to do so for long.

According to a foundation-sponsored Gallup poll of churchgoing Catholics released last month, fewer than half -- 45 percent -- rate U.S. Catholic bishops high on financial accountability, while two-thirds think “the church should be more accountable on finances.” A like number say “the revelations concerning the lack of financial accountability arising from the priestly sexual abuse scandal are a cause for concern.”

In other findings:

  • Sixty-eight percent of churchgoing Catholics who responded to the poll say the church should conduct and publish “an annual independent audit of finances at every church level,” while 79 percent agree “that each diocesan bishop should give a full accounting of the financial costs of settlements arising from the priest sexual abuse scandal.”
  • Fifty-five percent fear the cost of settlements from the priest sex abuse scandal will negatively impact the church’s ability to meet its mission, including programs that assist the disadvantaged members of society.
  • Nearly half would consider contributing to alternative non-diocesan charities as a substitute for the current giving.
  • About a quarter said they would reduce their current giving if they learned their contributions were used to pay for lawsuits. And 18 percent have stopped contributing to national collections.

“When you have 78 percent of your giving public out there saying they want a full accounting of the cost of the sexual abuse crisis, that’s something to pay attention to,” said Butler. “This is a major concern of people in the pews.”

The U.S. bishops can look to American business for a model. Public companies are required to make the types of disclosures Butler advocates for church entities. Or they could look to Rome.

“At the level of the Vatican you have probably the best consolidated financial statement of any church entity,” said Butler. “If the Holy Father and the curia can trust the public with their numbers, and realize that by doing so they were able to increase their donations worldwide quite dramatically, doesn’t it make sense that a diocese that would do the same would probably benefit? We think they ought to look at that model and follow it.”

Meanwhile, Bennett promises full disclosure as the chair of the National Review Board’s “causes” subcommittee. The committee is charged with writing reports on the roots of the sex abuse crisis and its dimensions.

On Dec. 6, following release of additional files related to priest sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese, Bennett announced his subcommittee “has started the process of conducting extensive interviews and studies in an effort to uncover answers to the church crisis.” Said Bennett: “The timing of this effort is particularly appropriate because the board is troubled about recent public revelations which suggest that past abuse and how it was handled was more aggravated than previously thought.” A number of cardinals, archbishops and bishops are scheduled to be questioned as a key part of the Review Board’s investigation.

“I don’t think anything is off the table,” Bennett told NCR. “It’s the intention of the board, and it’s certainly my intention as head of the causes committee, to look at everything that may have any relevance.”

Everything, said Bennett, includes such hot buttons as mandatory celibacy, homosexuality in the priesthood, and seminary formation practices. “Any report that didn’t deal with those subjects would lose any credibility,” he said.

Still, said Bennett, “I don’t think any of us view our responsibilities here to make reforms in the church or church policy.” He reiterated: “I don’t think any of us feel it’s appropriate to use the report to bring about the changes that any of us individually think should be brought about.”

Told that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the monthly journal First Things and an influential cleric, had criticized Bennett’s appointment to the board, he asked: “Who is Mr. Neuhaus?”

In the October issue of his magazine, Neuhaus approvingly quoted Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who noted, in a memo outlining her reasons for refusing to serve on the National Review Board, that Bennett “has no conspicuous record of devotion to the Catholic cause.”

Bennett, a one-time prosecutor, struck back: “If he’s comfortable expressing opinions when he doesn’t know me, and never met me, so be it. Let him say whatever he wants. What is the Catholic cause? Maybe he’s right. My cause here is to get to the bottom of this and make the best judgments I can in fulfilling the responsibilities under the charter. I’d like to think I was asked to be on the board because of certain skills or experiences that I have had that somebody decided would be of value to the church.”

Bennett, his back to the Washington Monument, outlined his views:

  • On changes enacted last month by the U.S. bishops, giving priests the right to a church trial before dismissal from the ministry: “As I understand the thrust of this, they are saying you cannot take away the person’s clerical status, you can’t kick them out forever, unless you have some kind of a process. And I think that’s reasonable.”
  • On the interplay between board members: “The board members are a very diverse group of people with views that go from A to Z on lots of things, but everyone sort of speaks with one voice on this issue: an absolute commitment to do whatever we can to protect children and young people and do everything we can under the authority we have in the charter to help accomplish that.”
  • On cooperation from bishops: “So far we’ve gotten full cooperation from the bishops. We’re at a stage where we haven’t had to make a lot of requests, but what we’ve asked for we have gotten.” Bennett led the time-consuming search to fill the newly created position of director of child and youth protection at the bishops’ conference and is pleased that Kathleen McChesney, a top-ranking FBI official, took the job. Her task: assist in the implementation of “safe environment programs” for children and report on diocesan compliance with the charter.
  • On the board’s power: “What we have is the bully pulpit. An errant bishop is going to have to be dealt with by other bishops and ultimately by Rome. There is some truth to the fact that in the creation of this board they have done something they have never done before -- to have a lay board and put [its members] in a position where they can comment on activities of bishops. I guess some people think that’s a bad thing and others think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing.”
  • On the bishops: “These are very smart people, these bishops -- they knew what they were doing [in creating the board] and in the long run this is going to be of great benefit to them. You don’t get to be a bishop, you don’t get to be a general in the army, without being pretty smart. These are very savvy, smart people who are very sensitive to their roles and to the church structure.”
  • On the board’s critics: “The last thing you need on something as sensitive as this is people with causes. ... I am surprised that everybody seems to have an agenda on these issues, everybody has an opinion on these issues, but very few people seem to have the data to back up their opinion.”

Bennett defended members of the board, most notably its chairman, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. “He’s a very strong person, and I think it was important for the laity to know and understand that there is going to be a very strong leader of this board who doesn’t tolerate nonsense.”

FADICA’s Butler, moreover, can state unreservedly that the folks he speaks for -- the nearly 50 family-run foundations who commit approximately $200 million to Catholic causes annually -- are growing weary of lack of diocesan financial disclosure.

“Our … foundations tend to be very strongly loyal to the church and I know how upset they are and how hurt they are. Some of them have experienced some very painful things that have happened with their donations, but they’re hanging in there, and I suspect they are probably typical of how Catholics feel at the moment.”

Still, said Butler, “there are limits to people’s tolerance.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002