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Spotlight Report

Money concerns said not utmost

Drain on Rome called no issue

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 4/22/2002

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II was carried to the altar on a gilded throne to celebrate Mass yesterday, and permeating the grandeur of St. Peter's Basilica was the distinct Vatican air of wealth and power.

Amid the Holy See's aura of opulence, the question has been raised whether the Vatican's sudden turn of attention to the crisis engulfing the American Catholic Church can be traced to monetary concerns.

With a crisis building for at least 15 years over the sexual abuse of children by priests, why did the Vatican call the American cardinals here for the unprecedented gathering set to begin tomorrow? Was it because the accruing financial costs associated with the crisis had simply become too staggering?

Most Vatican specialists insist that money is not the main issue, and the devastating financial ramifications of the scandals in the American archdioceses will actually have little impact on the Vatican's finances.

George Weigel, the pope's biographer and an American with perhaps the most direct access and keen understanding of the inner workings of the Vatican, said, ''This is not about money.''

Marco Politi, who covers the Vatican for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, agreed, saying, ''I don't think money has anything to do with why this meeting is being held. It's just not how things work if you understand the Holy See.

''The church is very centralized in its ruling hierarchy, but very decentralized when it comes to its finances,'' he said. ''These scandals are hurting the American church, but that will not impact the Vatican.''

Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka, a former archbishop of Detroit who was appointed in 1990 as the Vatican's top financial official, said, ''The concern here is over the problem of pedophilia and the harm of that publicity to the Church. Our main concern is not financial but to the faith of the people and the harm to individuals.''

Szoka made the comment in an April 5 interview in Business Week that chronicled his success in restoring the Vatican's financial stability after nearly a quarter-century of financial mismanagement.

Szoka said that the Vatican's $5 billion in assets would not be affected by the scandals. When asked whether the Vatican would end up financially rescuing American dioceses financially wiped out by massive court settlements in the sexual abuse cases, Szoka said, ''It's not the practice of the Holy See to bail out dioceses.

''First, it is not in accord with our structure. Second, we can't convey the idea that we will pay every time a diocese is in financial trouble. ... It's their responsibility,'' he said.

The financial structure of the Catholic Church is decentralized. Each of the 194 dioceses in America is autonomous. The roughly 20,000 churches within those dioceses raise an estimated $7.5 billion annually, which the dioceses use individually to pay salaries, run schools, and fund charitable institutions.

Once a year a collection known as ''Peter's Pence'' is taken up in each of those churches which is forwarded to the Vatican, and there are other small streams of money that run to the Holy See.

But of the Vatican's roughly $200 million annual budget, the American church contributes only about 5 percent, according to John Allen, who covers the Vatican for National Catholic Reporter.

''The Vatican's vast holdings in real estate and investments are the center of its financial power, and so this scandal would not directly hit the Vatican. The effect is more on the American dioceses that are hit with the big lawsuits. That is crippling.''

Catholic specialists researching the financial aspects of the scandal in America estimate that in the last 15 years, the total cost of lawsuits, settlements, lawyers' fees, psychological counseling for abusive priests and their victims, and other attendant costs run as high as $1 billion.

Priest abuse scandals have driven dioceses such as Dallas and Santa Fe to the brink of bankruptcy.

The Boston archdiocese will be badly hurt by these scandals. Already, attorneys and specialists estimate that the diocese faces paying $40 million to settle the 140 pending sexual molestation claims against priests, and possibly tens of millions more as claims continue to pour in. Only $10 million would be covered by liability insurance.

There is some evidence that the vast array of social services that the Boston agency of Catholic Charities provides is already being hurt by the scandal. The institution, which serves 170,000 needy people, announced layoffs of about 10 percent of its staff of 1,400 and a planned 15 percent cut in its $40 million annual budget, according to Catholic Charities president Dr. Joseph Doolin.

In recognition of the financial crisis that lies ahead, Cardinal Bernard F. Law hopes to rely on wealthy Catholics to raise a $25 million special fund that would help cover the massive costs. But skeptics say he is unlikely to succeed amid mounting disapproval of his handling of the investigations and steadily rising calls for his resignation.

A wealthy Massachusetts Catholic who has been called upon to assist in the appeal said, ''Cardinal Law just doesn't realize the anger that is out there over this scandal. Catholics want to help the church do good, but they don't want to pay for its misdeeds.''

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 4/22/2002.
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