Spending spree: Is the Catholic Church using its resources wisely?

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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At a time when most Americans are cutting back on their spending, the Catholic Church has been shelling out quite a bit of cash lately.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has spent $11.6 million over the last two fiscal years--including $10 million in the first nine months of the current fiscal year--on legal bills, primarily defending priests accused of sexual abuse. And that number doesn't even include the bill for the landmark trial of Msgr. William Lynn, which is still ongoing. In comparison, the entire payroll for the archdiocese, including all of its priests and lay employees' salary and benefits packages, totaled $18.6 million for the last fiscal year.

Of course, this kind of spending from the church is nothing new. A number of dioceses have had to pay out massive settlements in sexual abuse lawsuits. Last year the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, for example, was forced to pay a $77.4 million settlement that also resulted in 22 employees being laid off--without unemployment benefits, since dioceses are exempt from paying unemployment taxes--and the diocese's newspaper being shut down.

Such settlements are in some ways unavoidable, particularly when the amount the church must pay is handed down by the court. But footing the legal bill to defend priests who have abused children seems like more of a choice--one that many Catholics might question.

Then again, asking priests to pay for their own lawyers might be seen as uncharitable by some, like Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who was recently revealed to have authorized "charitable" payments of up to $20,000 to priests who were guilty of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Dolan objects to using the word "payoff" to describe these expenditures, saying they were an act of charity to help priests transition to the laity after breaking the law and sexually assaulting children. The New York Times reports that abusive priests were also given a pension and had their health insurance paid by the diocese until they were able to find another job. Dolan says this was all good stewardship of the church's resources, but others might have a very different take.

Not all of the big checks coming from the church have been related to sex abuse. In Minnesota, the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul reportedly spent $650,000 on a political campaign to ban same-sex marriage. That's a lot of money to devote to an initiative that not even all Minnesota Catholics support.

Of course, the church also spends a great deal of money and devotes plenty of resources to charitable programs, evangelization efforts, and other important ministries. But aside from some of these high profile examples, one can also find plenty of instances of frivolous spending or resources that could be put to better use. As a former diocesan employee it was something I saw often, yet at the same time many lay employees were struggling to make ends meet or taking on second jobs to supplement their low salaries.

The church teaches all of its members to always be good stewards of their resources, and members of the faithful have the right to ask the same of the institutional church and its leadership. All Catholics, from the high end donors cutting big checks down to the folks on a fixed income sacrificing a few dollars in the collection basket, might want to start taking a closer look at how the church is spending that money.