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Spotlight Report

Charity to accept donation despite Lennon's stance

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/9/2003

Members of the board of Catholic Charities voted overwhelmingly yesterday to accept a $35,000 charitable contribution from the lay group Voice of the Faithful, saying their obligation to the poor is greater than their obligation to their bishop.

The decision comes just days after Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the interim administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston, refused to accept the money for the church, and, using his authority as bishop, asked the top board officials of Catholic Charities to refuse it as well.

''We have been put in a difficult position by these events, but we felt that we had a higher responsibility to the needs of the poor, and to the basic mission of Catholic Charities,'' said Neal F. Finnegan, the chairman of the Catholic Charities board and also the chairman of Citizens Bank.

Lennon, effectively rebuked by some of the leading lay Catholics in the city, as well as by an agency headed by one of his own cabinet officials, appeared to back away from a dispute yesterday.

Although some Catholic Charities officials had feared that Lennon might try to fire the charity's board, Lennon issued a statement after the vote saying that, at least for now, he would not punish the agency for accepting money from the Voice of Compassion, which is the name of the fund established by Voice of the Faithful.

''One of my primary efforts as apostolic administrator has been to work toward ending division and fostering unity within the Archdiocese of Boston,'' Lennon said. ''In light of this, I am disappointed that Catholic Charities has decided to accept money from the Voice of Compassion fund. However, in keeping with this stated goal, I will not take any steps at this time regarding their decision.''

Voice of the Faithful officials were delighted with the decision, which marks the second time Catholic Charities has decided to take money from the organization after a bishop declined it. In December, Catholic Charities accepted $56,000 raised by the group after Cardinal Bernard F. Law did not accept it before a deadline set by Voice of the Faithful.

''We're gratified that Catholic Charities has taken the money and we have confidence that they will put the money to good use immediately,'' said James E. Post, the president of Voice of the Faithful. ''It is very unfortunate that Bishop Lennon put the board in this position of having to choose between the bishop and the people.''

The decision by Catholic Charities officials to disregard an instruction from the bishop demonstrates how the clergy sex abuse scandal of the last year has frayed relations between lay Catholics and the hierarchy, scholars say.

''This continues the erosion of the unity of the church, and shows how deep the dissatisfaction is with the leadership, and it will certainly concern other bishops around the country,'' said Stephen J. Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College. ''I don't think this means the people who voted to take the money are being disloyal as Catholics, but I do think they believe that part of being Catholic is acting the way Jesus did, which is by being concerned for the poor, and putting that above the public show of unanimity.''

Lennon, in his statement, suggested that he understood the board's dilemma, and that he would work toward removing some of the acrimony that enveloped the church in recent months.

''While I am indeed committed to fostering unity, I remain committed to responding to those who stand in need of assistance,'' he said. ''It is my sincere hope that, as we move forward, the unity that is a hallmark of the Church, and that is so necessary for the Archdiocese of Boston, will be brought about by all of us working together.''

Voice of the Faithful is a national organization, formed a year ago in Wellesley by lay Catholics upset by the church's handling of sexually abusive priests. The organization now claims 30,000 members, and has been raising money for Catholic ministries from people unwilling to give directly to the archdiocese.

Catholic Charities is the social services arm of the Archdiocese of Boston, but is separately incorporated. The agency, with a $40 million annual budget, is the largest nongovernmental provider of social services in the state, assisting 200,000 people last year, most of whom were not Catholic.

The Catholic Charities board features many of the city's leading Catholic corporate elite. More than 10 percent of the board is non-Catholic, including the Rev. Ray Hammond, founder of the Ten Point Coalition, and Robert Leikind, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The church hierarchy is represented on the board by Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, the vicar general of the archdiocese. An archdiocesan priest, the Rev. Phillip B. Earley, serves as the ex-officio secretary of the board.

Twenty-six of the 51 board members attended yesterday's meeting, which lasted just over an hour, and several more voted by proxy. Officials said Lennon's opposition was presented and discussed, but that the vote was nearly unanimous. The officials declined to say who voted against accepting the money, but they said an overwhelming majority of the Catholic members of the board voted to take the money.

Lennon's spokesman has cited three reasons for refusing Voice of the Faithful's money: ''This separate fund-raising effort creates division, undermines the a rchdiocese's own fund-raising efforts, and imposes unacceptable restrictions on the use of the donations.''

Joseph Doolin, the president of Catholic Charities and a member of Lennon's cabinet, said he supported the decision to take the money. ''This is a painful decision to have to make, but I feel that my responsibility to Catholic Charities is to advance its mission, and I don't see this as a repudiation of the bishop,'' he said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/9/2003.
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