Payback time

Rodger Van Allen, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, writes concerning the U.S. bishops’ recent failure to respond to an appeal from major Catholic donors:

Erica John, an heiress to the Miller brewing fortune, is angry. It seems safe to assume that other Catholic philanthropists are not happy either. At last month’s meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops, the philanthropists’ respectful call for a nationwide audit of how much the clergy sexual-abuse crisis has cost the church was not even addressed.

"We as funders think it’s important that the bishops open their books and come clean, because some of us are beginning to feel disappointed and even alienated from the church," Ms. John said in an interview. She had become particularly roused after learning that a building donated by a foundation endowed by her family had been sold to raise the $450,000 payment Milwaukee’s then archbishop, Rembert Weakland, had made to a man who accused him of sexual assault. Under canon law, diocesan bishops are permitted to spend up to $1 million without consulting their canonically mandated financial committees. Weakland resigned in June.

The same month, Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Affairs (FADICA), representing fifty wealthy Catholic donors, wrote to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, requesting that the conference hire an auditor to survey all settlements and fees over the past two decades. Francis J. Butler, FADICA’s president, reported that Bishop Gregory forwarded the proposal to two committees in the bishops’ conference, but that the proposal never made it to the agenda of the bishops’ fall meeting. The reason: Each bishop is autonomous and the bishops’ conference has no power to launch a nationwide audit that would compel individual bishops to reveal diocesan finances. But now is the time for the bishops to be collaborative as perhaps never before. As Ms. John noted: "If the bishops think that the laity doesn’t count, that this is business as usual, then they are going to prolong the agony."

Published in the 2002-12-20 issue: 

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