Churches should disclose finances

On another thread, there is a lively discussion about the Catholic League that concerns, among other things, the salary of its president. His $372,501 salary for 2008 is known because the Catholic League, as a non-profit, must file a Form 990 with the IRS. Such documents are public and available on the Web site Guidestar.org.But churches are exempt, as religious organizations, from having to file Form 990 - a frustration to journalists and others trying to delve into their activities. This came to mind as I heard an NPR report today on how religious organizations are exempt from a federal law that guarantees pensions and requires periodic disclosure of financial information:

When sex abuse lawsuits pushed the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, Del., into bankruptcy, Maria Carpitella got some bad news. Through bankruptcy filings, she and other retirees and lay employees of the diocese learned their pension plan was severely underfunded and isn't protected like corporate pension plans.Thousands of other church-affiliated workers and retirees are at risk of losing funds they're counting on to see them through retirement because of a little-known loophole in federal pension protections.

As NPR reported, the church pension plans are exempt from the federal pension law "because that's the way churches wanted it" when pension protection laws were being passed in the 1970s and 1980s. If there were normal disclosure, it would be easier to find out who is managing pension funds, as the Wall Street Journal has reported. There is a tendency in the church to do business with friends or donors - not always the right choice.It's time for religious organizations to be held to the same standards of disclosure that apply to all others.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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