US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Shake-up in St. Louis: What's going on with Catholic Charities?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I've worked in enough offices to know that when someone leaves suddenly with no explanation, it is never a good sign. And when three top executives suddenly resign at the same time, well, that's a really bad sign.

So when I heard the news that the president, chief operating officer, and chief financial officer of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Louis all left the organization last week, I didn't find it to be encouraging news for the church's top social service agency. The departed employees aren't talking to the media--at least for now--and the archdiocese would only say it is a "personnel matter" and that they have no further comment. So officially, we have no idea what happened.

But a closer look reveals that signs of internal strife have been visible for a while. As Tim Townsend reported in 2010, things seemed to get messy after Cardinal Raymond Burke left St. Louis in 2008 to take his current post at the Vatican and Bishop Robert Hermann took over as interim head of the archdiocese. Hermann started looking into some concerns about fundraising for Catholic Charities, and both executives and board members started to quit rather quickly.

Thomas Mulhearn, who at the time had been president of the agency for two years, resigned in February 2009. Msgr. Mark Ullrich took over as president and only lasted until December 2009 before he quit, too. During Ullrich's presidency, current St. Louis archbishop Robert Carlson replaced Hermann and tried to smooth things over. Carlson appointed vicar general Msgr. Vernon Gardin to temporarily run the agency in 2010 before hiring Brian O'Malley as president in June of that year. You'd need a scorecard to keep track of all those changes.

And now three years later, O'Malley was among the three top executives to walk out. Catholic Charities veteran Jack Lally has been named interim president while a search is underway for a full-time replacement, who will (counting the interim presidents) be the sixth person to head the agency in five years.

One thing that hasn't changed during these years is the need among Catholic Charities' clients. People in the city, like many other parts of the country, are hit hard by poverty and are struggling to stay afloat while affording basic necessities like housing. Catholic Charities serves 155,000 people each year and has an annual operating budget of $87.9 million, but according to their 2012 fiscal year numbers, revenue dropped by nearly $7 million in just one year. I doubt that big of a loss and the resignation of three top officials are a coincidence.

In my encounters with people serving in Catholic Charities offices around the country, I've seen firsthand how they can be tireless advocates for the poor and the struggling, going to great lengths to help wherever their is a need. We may never find out what's been going on behind the scenes in St. Louis, but hopefully this latest round of changes is the last and the organization can end its internal issues. It is time they got back to putting all their energy into what Catholic Charities does best: serving those in need in the name of the gospel.