Reports of sexual abuse and cover-ups within the church hierarchy have led to increased attention to the church’s secrecy around its finances. Until only recent decades, U.S. diocesan financial affairs were kept confidential and knowledge was compartmentalized; even some very highly placed diocesan officials were unaware of the settlements used to keep clerical sexual abuse under wraps. It was generally assumed that once contributions hit the collection basket, parishioners had no business knowing how the bishops used that money. What they would have learned is that the U.S. Catholic Church has spent $3.99 billion related to clerical-abuse settlements.
Before the Boston Globe’s 2002 “Spotlight” report, most Catholics in the pews thought that clerical abuse was rare. But presiding bishops knew differently: both from their personal experiences, and from the work of Fr. Thomas Doyle and others, who reported in the 1980s on the prevalence of abuse in the church. When Rev. Gilbert Gauthe admitted to abusing more than three hundred children in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1986, or in 1993 when Rev. James Porter was sentenced to between eighteen and twenty years in prison for sexual abuse of children in Fall River, Massachusetts, there was minimal discussion of the role that church funds might have played in keeping those stories quiet.
Transparent financial reporting would have revealed the extent of the settlements bishops made, and lay Catholics would have been aware that abuse was not rare but widespread. With this information made public, many children could have been spared the devastating effects of child abuse. Even were abuse to occur, church officials would not have been able to cover it up with secret settlements. Serial abuse would have been far less likely.
Why was the financial story not told? In many cases, the hard facts simply weren’t available. Before 2002, everyone—from diocesan leaders, to the lay faithful in the pews, to the survivors of sexual abuse and their attorneys—knew that the availability of diocesan financial information depended upon a bishop’s willingness to release it to the public; there was no civil or canon requirement to do so. Most U.S. dioceses are corporations sole: the presiding bishop effectively has complete control of the finances, with the ability to move funds from one purpose to another at his personal discretion. Even though canon law (Canon 1277) requires the consent of diocesan finance councils for “extraordinary” expenditures, there is no evidence that finance councils’ consent was routinely sought for these settlements.
After 2002, as the role of financial secrecy in paying off settlements became clearer, the lack of real data on diocesan finances and the difficulty in obtaining it made it impossible for most lay members of a diocese to know if such financial practices were continuing. Those concerned that their contributions had been used for settlements had no way to be sure they were not. Lacking factual financial information, lay members of a diocese who wished to support charitable activities were left with a choice: they could continue their financial support as before and trust their bishop to do the right thing, or they could support other, more financially transparent charitable organizations. Many chose the latter; in some cases, diocesan financial support dropped alarmingly after 2002. With contributions in areas of the United States affected by the scandal declining at an average of $2.36 billion per year from 1980 to 2010, and the total costs of settlement payouts mounting to nearly $4 billion, the impossibility of maintaining the status quo was obvious.
Dioceses across the country began to move toward more financial transparency to convince their members that their money was being used for the mission of the church. Some bishops made audited financial reports publicly available, publishing them on websites and in diocesan newspapers. This movement toward transparency began well before the election of Pope Francis; it may have even been one of the factors encouraging the new pope’s efforts to increase transparency within the Vatican.