Sister Christine Schenk believes the Catholic laity should ask the church for financial transparency.
“We need to take some ownership and ask for the same transparency and accountability that we would expect from any other nonprofit that we support with our money,” said Schenk, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph religious order and executive director of Future Church.
FutureChurch is a national organization working to reform the Catholic Church. Its primary goals include calling attention to the priest shortage and what it calls the “systematic inequality of women in the Catholic Church.”
The Lakewood-based nonprofit group is not affiliated nor sanctioned by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. A prepared statement from the diocese describes it as “an independent organization of individuals who promote an agenda that is not consistent with church teaching and who are fully responsible for the arrangement of their own programs and activities.”
To help sound the alarm about fiscal responsibility, Future Church has drafted a statement on financial accountability in the Catholic Church. It can be found at www.futurechurch.org.
The statement is based on the book Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church (Crown, 2011), written by Jason Berry, who will be the guest speaker at the organization’s annual benefit Thursday.
In two chapters of the book, Berry, an investigative reporter and author from New Orleans, deals with the financial and sex abuse scandals in the Cleveland diocese and the restructuring plan that downsized the number of parishes in the diocese.
In his book, Berry focuses on the dioceses and archdioceses of Boston, Cleveland, New Orleans and Los Angeles and says the Catholic Church has shut down more than 1,300 parishes in the United States since 1995. He acknowledges some of those closings were warranted because of declining attendance and other factors, but the focus of his book is churches he considered to be vibrant with strong finances.
Berry questions the reasoning of current Cleveland Bishop (and former Boston Auxiliary Bishop) Richard Lennon in closing more than 60 parishes in Boston and 50 in Cleveland. He suggests that some of the parishes in Boston might have been closed to be sold off for money to be used to settle lawsuits related to the sex abuse scandal.
Berry says he found no evidence that money from churches sold in the Cleveland diocese went to settlements.
Diocesan officials have always said that the legal settlements are paid from a special reserve from an insurance fund.
Still, Berry accuses former Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla of “sloppy financial management.”
Pilla was in leadership when federal charges were brought against the diocese’s former chief financial officer and a former accountant for defrauding the diocese via a kickback scheme. Both men were convicted of charges and sentenced to prison.
“In my view, this was a stunning human drama in which the money of the faithful was mismanaged,” Berry said. “But for all of Pilla’s financial blunders, he laid out a moral blueprint that Lennon went after with a hatchet with his decisions to close parishes.”
Lennon, who is recuperating from back surgery, could not be reached for comment.
The moral blueprint that Berry referred to is known as Church in the City, an initiative that calls on people in suburban areas to work toward creating and promoting development in the urban core.
Berry contends that Lennon inherited a diocese “with a strong base of support among wealthy Clevelanders” and the “most well-endowed Catholic Charities organization in the country.”
Noting that Los Angeles and Boston have the most transparent disclosure of financial information, Berry said Cleveland has been less forthcoming.
Robert Tayek, spokesman for the Cleveland diocese, countered Berry’s claim, saying the diocese is financially solvent and that diocesan financial records are posted on its website (www.dioceseofcleveland. org). In addition, the diocese also has released a report to the community that details finances every February since 2004 (following the height of the sex abuse scandal).
The diocese also plans to release a report after the first of the year that gives a detailed accounting of the finances of the parishes that were closed as part of the diocesan reconfiguration plan.
Schenk welcomes anything that will help parishioners follow the money they have donated to the church.
“The church should be leading the way in financial transparency,” Schenk said. “God has the capacity to bring good out of the most difficult situations. Now is not the time to give up on the church. It’s time to dig in and work for transformation of structure so we have a church we can all be proud of.”
The annual benefit for Future Church is 5 p.m. at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Tickets are $75.
For information, visit www.futurechurch.org or call 216-228-0869, ext. 4.
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or email@example.com.