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Budget axe falls in Los Angeles; chancery staff faces drastic cuts

Los Angeles

Archdiocesan employees’ emotions ranged from dismay to disgust that Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony absented himself from a Sept. 10 meeting in which workers were told that up to half of them are about to lose their jobs.

The archdiocese opened a $200 million cathedral Sept. 2 and to date has paid out more than $3.6 million in sex abuse settlements, but officials said neither of those circumstances had anything to do with the layoffs. They blamed the budget shortfall on the drop in the stock market.

Faced with a $4.3 million budget shortfall, all archdiocesan employees were called to the meeting and notified that 50 percent cuts were likely in some departments, such as detention ministry. Other departments could be eliminated altogether, as campus ministry was.

“The cardinal was present for the opening of the cathedral, but he wasn’t present for the closing of the chancery office,” said one employee. Another commented, “I’m utterly disgusted. I’m an angry person right now. Religious ed, detention ministry, secretarial pool, justice and peace, campus ministry, we were all there.” The reaction was twofold -- criticism of Mahony’s absence, and anxiety for the future.

“I can tell you the room was charged with concern, stress, frustration, anger -- and a number of people said they were appalled that the cardinal opted not to be at the meeting,” said the employee.

“[Vicar General Terrance] Fleming took it upon himself and said, ‘No, this is my job. I didn’t feel the cardinal needed to be here, etc. etc.’ He got very defensive,” the person said.

Said a third, “We were told this was not connected to the sex abuse payouts and the cathedral. And there was not a person in the room who believed that. They cut 35 of our jobs last year, but added about that many people to the staff of the new cathedral -- so that was a wash.”

Those at the meeting were told the archdiocese expects the parishes and volunteers to take up the slack. An immediate response was, “Volunteers cannot replace competent, trained ministers.”

“Decentralizing and locally grounding the ministries of the church might have some merit,” said a letter circulated immediately after the meeting, but it added, “to facilitate the move from chancery office-centered [and funded] projects to parish- or deanery-based ones, parishes should be given the incentive to take on ministries and fund necessary positions. If a group of parishes near the county jail or juvenile hall wants to pay for a chaplain, they should be able to deduct that expense from their annual assessment.”

Tod Tamberg, archdiocesan spokesperson, said, “What brought us to this moment is the archdiocesan finance council’s failure to approve earlier this month the proposed Archdiocesan Catholic Center’s budget for FY 2003.

“The proposed budget contained $4.3 million in deficit spending. Acting in accord with its responsibility under canon law, the finance council said it would not approve a deficit budget. Budget cuts are being made in order to present the finance council with a balanced budget for their approval.

“Like many other organizations, the archdiocese has experienced a reduction in revenues, including investment income from endowment funds. The [Archdiocesan Catholic Center’s] fixed operational costs, however, have continued to increase, resulting in an annual budget deficit. Over the past two years, reserve funds have been tapped in order to finance the operation of the archdiocesan administrative offices.”

He continued, “Having to lay off employees is very painful. Our employees are hard working and dedicated to the mission of the church. They are also our co-workers and friends. During employee meetings, archdiocesan leadership has discussed the budget shortfall and the possible ramifications for the [Archdiocesan Catholic Center]. By way of general information, severance packages, job assistance and counseling will be made available to those who are being laid off.”

In response to questions about sexual abuse and the $3.6 million in settlements the archdiocese has paid out since 1985, Tamberg said, “It is not possible to determine liability in the future, but certainly such contingencies must be examined and planned for. Nevertheless, it is the underperformance of the capital markets and increased operating costs -- not the sexual abuse crisis -- that is the proximate cause of the current cutbacks.”

Discussing the cost of the cathedral, he said, “The majority of the fundraising for the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels took place in the 1990s, before the capital market downturn. The fundraising for the cathedral was separate from archdiocesan development efforts. No parish or school funds were used to fund the cathedral project’s total cost of $189 million.

“The total cost of the project included financing of loans and the cost of the land upon which the cathedral complex was built. The cardinal announced at the dedication Sept. 2 that the entire amount had been fully funded,” Tamberg said.

Cathedral employees are paid from cathedral funds, not archdiocesan funds, he said.

Employees said there are ways the archdiocese could find the funds to keep the chancery offices functioning. Said one, “Sell property, and at the same time fix one of the problems we’re having with our priests: their lack of maturity.

“Why are we isolating seminarians at St. John, which is prime property, when we could send them to Loyola Marymount [University], or anywhere else? Let them be with women, with men, let them mature,” said the employee. “If they have a vocation they’ll keep it, and be more mature for it.” The seminary is an impressive, many acre, multimillion-dollar ocean view property in Camarillo, close to Santa Barbara.

The circulating letter combined concern for the impact of lost jobs on employees and on outreach to those who most need the church ministries. It states that it was the archdiocesan leaders’ responsibility “to put a fraction of the energy they put into fundraising for the cathedral into fundraising for the works of the church. That building is a sign, and it needs the substantive ministries of the church to ground it with a valid commitment to those in need.”

The letter continues, “There ought to be a solid, extensive campaign to raise funds during this crisis. If they could raise $200 million, they ought to be able to raise $4 million. They certainly have the contacts and skills. The first people fired should be the Enron PR firm. That is such an embarrassment.”

Mahony has on call a $350-an-hour consultant to help decide tactics in dealing with the media during the continuing clerical sex abuse scandal.

“Prove it to us,” said one employee. “They won’t open the books -- no. The laity is screaming for that, but there’s no volunteering it. This is our church. What are they doing to it? People are afraid. Their hearts are with the gospel, and unfortunately the church is not reflecting that.”

An employee letter states, “On the various floors of this building … a lot of folks deeply committed to a faithful vision of service [in] this top-heavy organization … seem pretty demoralized.”

At two glitzy social affairs Sept. 7 on the Cathedral Plaza, Mahony raised $2.2 million for cathedral programs. On Sept. 16, the entire campus ministry department of the Los Angeles archdiocese was abolished and the detention ministry cut by 50 percent.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002