2 Dec 2010

Catholic faithful continue to heed bishops' appeals for money, give more after sex crimes and cover-ups exposed

Bloomberg.com April 22, 2010

Catholic Donors Give While Priests Abuse Children

By Flavia Krause-Jackson and Gadi Dechter

Margaret McSherry, a 79-year-old widow, keeps giving 7 pounds ($10.85) a week to Holy Family Church in Belfast as the investigation of pedophile priests spreads to three continents.

“I am a practicing Catholic Christian and I always will be,” said the retired nurse in Northern Ireland. “The Church needs money to keep itself up.”

Loyalty such as McSherry’s to the world’s oldest Christian denomination, with more than 1 billion followers, helps explain why anger at the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Benedict XVI for failing to prevent priests in five countries from abusing children won’t lead to a drop in Sunday collections and donations to local parishes, said Joseph Claude Harris, a Seattle-based expert on Catholic finance.

After hundreds of incidents of priests sexually abusing their parishioners were disclosed in 2002 in the U.S., fundraising by bishops and parishes went up, said Harris, the author of “The Cost of Catholic Parishes and Schools,” published in 1996 by Sheed & Ward. He also has written 24 articles for national publications on financial and staffing issues in the American Catholic Church.

“During a period when things were extremely negative, annual appeal and offertory collections increased,” Harris said in a telephone interview.

Rising Gifts

Pledged gifts to bishops’ appeals and offertory contributions from parishioners in the U.S., where churches are financed by voluntary donations more than anywhere else in the world, rose 18.8 percent to $7.7 billion in the four years after allegations of abuse in Boston emerged in 2002, according to the most recently available data from the International Catholic Stewardship Council in Washington.

“People basically deal with the church on an extraordinarily limited, local level,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “There is not a Catholic bishop on this planet who drives a smaller car or does his own laundry or takes fewer vacations or has suffered any tangible consequences.”

Benedict, who turned 83 last week and celebrated the fifth anniversary of his papacy this week, is facing his worst crisis as Catholic Church victims in the U.S. and Germany proved that he was aware of child abuse during his previous roles as archbishop and cardinal from 1977 to 2005.

While head of the Vatican’s priest-discipline office in 1985, he postponed the defrocking of a California priest convicted of child molestation while recommending “paternal care.”

Good of the Church

The delay was in part “to consider the good of the Universal Church,” the pope, then named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote in a letter dated Nov. 6, 1985, to the Diocese of Oakland. The note was released April 9 by Jeff Anderson, an attorney in St. Paul, Minnesota, who has represented clergy- abuse victims.

“It was not expeditious perhaps by today’s standards but expeditious for the standards of the time,” said Jeffrey Lena, U.S. counsel to the Holy See since 2002, in a telephone interview. Defrocking “is a complex canonical process and the fact it took some time does not mean that this pope was not taking these cases extremely seriously.”

There are two active lawsuits in the U.S., neither related to the current round of abuse disclosures, said Lena, who is based in Berkeley, California, at a location he declined to disclose.

Not Employees

“It is my firm conviction that United States courts do not have jurisdiction over these cases,” Lena said. “Such cases may be valid as against the dioceses and orders to which an offending priest appertains. But the priests of the world are not, as plaintiffs try to insist, ‘employees of the Holy See by virtue of their priesthood.’ Nor are the bishops of the world employees of the Pope.”

Lena declined to comment on how much he charges clients.

“I would only note that I am not part of a phalanx of corporate-type lawyers,” he said. “I try to style my practice on the traditional European model, rather than the American corporate model: a small firm providing discreet service and keeping a low profile.”

Church donations in the U.S. are widely dispersed. On average, each of the 22 million registered Catholic households gave $317 in 2006, according to Harris’s analysis of survey data from the stewardship council.

Same Pattern?

“Parish giving wasn’t affected by the earlier scandal and I expect the same pattern to hold here,” said Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Exceptions to the U.S. trend abound. The Vatican’s handling of sex abuse has prompted Roberta Colucci, an Italian kindergarten teacher who has a 14-year-old daughter, to plan to stop checking the box on her annual income tax form that transfers 0.8 percent of her bill to the Catholic Church.

“I have no words to describe how disgusted I am and I will do everything in my power to make sure they don’t get a cent from me,” said Colucci, 42.

The cases of child abuse coincide with the global economy’s emergence from its worst recession since the Great Depression. The Holy See, the institutional framework through which the pope and his advisers govern the Catholic Church, has spent 254.9 million euros ($341 million) and took in 254 million euros in 2008, the most recent publicly disclosed figures.

Peter’s Pence

Gifts to Peter’s Pence, a fund of donations made directly to the pope, totaled $76 million in 2008, down from a high of $102 million in 2006 and up from $63 million at the start of the decade, according to the latest annual report released last July.

Donations have held steady in one of the biggest archdioceses in Ireland, where child abuse charges will cost the Roman Catholic Church and the state at least 1 billion euros, according to the Residential Institutions Redress Board. The Dublin-based group was formed by the government in 2002 to make amends with people abused in schools and institutions.

Two Irish reports, reports, one last May and the second in November, documented widespread child abuse by priests and members of religious orders, as well as efforts by church authorities to cover up the offenses. It wasn’t until March 19 that Benedict wrote a letter to Irish Catholics and apologized for the “grave errors” committed by his clergy.

Bishop’s Resignation

Benedict today accepted the resignation of James Moriarty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin in Ireland. Moriarty was auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Dublin 1991 to 2002, a period during which allegations of child abuse were improperly handled, the November report found.

Donations for the year through June 30, 2009, to the Archdiocese of Dublin, which covers more than 200 parishes, were 61.4 million euros. That compares with 62.1 million in the year earlier and 47.6 million in the same period of 2003.

“People are making a distinction between the national church, which is very weak, and the local church, which is relatively still strong,’ said David Quinn, director of the Dublin-based Iona Institute, which promotes marriage and religion in society.

McSherry, who has worshipped at Holy Family in Belfast for more than 40 years, said she has limits on how her donations should be used.

“I wouldn’t like to think I would be paying for sex abuse bills,” she said as she stood in front of her apartment building, which is less than a five-minute walk from the church. “The Vatican should sell off some assets.”

German Taxes

German taxes from parishioners in the 10 years through 2008 increased 21.6 percent to 5.1 billion euros, according to government data. A church report released on March 12 said that when German-born Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich, he took part in the 1980 decision to move a priest accused of molestation to his diocese to undergo therapy.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a March 12 interview that the pope was “extraneous” to allowing the priest to return to pastoral work, where he went on to commit further abuses.

The pope said in an April 15 sermon in Rome that it was “necessary to do penance” for the sex-abuse crimes committed by Catholic clerics, and “to recognize the wrong in our lives” and “to prepare for pardon.” Benedict met with abuse victims during an official visit to Malta on April 18. The unscheduled meeting was “a beautiful experience,” said Lawrence Grech, 37, who leads a group of 10 Maltese abuse victims, in an interview.

Praying Together

The pope “prayed with them and assured them that the Church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future,” the Vatican said in an e-mailed statement after the meeting.

Yesterday, the pontiff told a general audience in Malta that he had “shared their suffering” and said the church would take “action.” He previously met in 2008 with victims in the U.S. and Australia. The Vatican said March 13 it would remove the 10-year statute of limitations for priests accused of child molestation.

In Italy, where the church gets most of its funding from voluntary taxes, contributions climbed 32 percent to 1 billion euros in the 10 years through 2008, government reports show.

The church risks losing parishioners like Colucci in Rome.

“I can honestly say I have never been so disgusted,” she said. “When I think of such an abuse of trust, it really makes my skin crawl. That is why I am really questioning for the first time where my money goes. I don’t want them to have access to a cent that I earn.”

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