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Retirement changes eyed for priests

The cash-strapped Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is considering significant changes in its expectations of senior priests that would encourage clergy to continue to work after they retire and require priests with financial assets to help pay for nursing-home or assisted-living care.

The archdiocese says that it remains committed to taking care of its clergy and that it will guarantee that no retired priests are without shelter, healthcare, or income. But the archdiocese says it must change benefits or risk running out of money in its pension fund.

The adjustments, which were circulated in a draft policy to all priests and are being discussed at meetings with clergy around the archdiocese, are being proposed as many private companies are eliminating or reducing pension benefits.

The archdiocese says it faces a $55 million unfunded liability in its pension fund for priests. Actuaries say that is the amount the archdiocese has promised to retirees, an amount that it does not have in the bank. The archdiocese attributes the problem to poor investment performance and longer average life span and says the shortfall is unrelated to the costs of settling abuse cases or closing parishes.

According to material sent to priests, the archdiocese did not contribute to the clergy pension fund between 1986 and 2002, when investment returns were high, and during that period the archdiocese used regular Christmas and Easter collections for retired priests to pay for the medical care of active as well as retired priests.

Under the proposed policy, more retired priests would be encouraged to live in rectories, and all priests would be expected to seek Social Security benefits.

An actuarial firm estimated that the changes to the benefit plan could save the archdiocese $36 million to $53 million in projected clergy pension costs.

The Boston Archdiocese, like other dioceses, faces a dwindling number of active priests and, in the short term, an increase in the number of retirees. At the end of last year, the archdiocese had 578 active priests, down from 1,002 two decades earlier, and 265 retired priests. The median age of active priests is 59, and 83 active priests are older than 70. The archdiocese expects 173 active priests to retire or die over the next decade and no more than 50 to be ordained.

Priests are apprehensive about the proposed changes, which were prepared by an actuarial consulting firm, Towers Perrin. The draft policy makes clear that priests will be expected to have a more active role in taking care of themselves after retirement. The policy says that ''priests in their earlier years should consult a financial adviser regarding being financially secure in retirement."

''I'm upset, because I don't have the money to take care of myself," said the Rev. William M. MacKenzie, 65, who became a senior priest in 2001 because of a physical disability, but still helps out on weekends at an Amesbury parish.

In a letter to priests, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley described the proposed policy as ''a major change in the way the archdiocese fulfills its responsibility for those priests who have given their life, energy, and ministry to the people of the Church of Boston." The archdiocese cautioned that the policy mailed to priests is a draft and said church officials are already making changes in response to clergy input.

The Rev. Joseph M. Hennessey, a member of the Presbyteral Council, a clergy group that advises O'Malley, said priests are carefully reviewing the proposal.

''The money is just not there," said Hennessey, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Kingston. ''We know we have to do something."

A leader of the Boston Priests Forum, an organization of local clergy, said many priests think the archdiocese should ask for help from potential donors before cutting back on benefits for priests.

''Even though this was presented as a draft, it looked like they had made a lot of decisions already, and it has really scared a lot of people," said the Rev. Thomas A. Mahoney, parochial vicar of St. Patrick Church in Watertown and a board member of the Priests Forum. ''The older guys, at the end of their careers, feel like they're getting the rug pulled out from under them."

O'Malley, the sole trustee of the pension fund and the ultimate decision maker, said in his letter that change is needed for the financial stability of the pension fund, for the equal distribution of funds among retired priests, and for ''the improved fraternity among clergy." He said that the changes would ''offer a significant adjustment from what priests are accustomed" to, but that the positive results would include that ''these policies encourage a simpler lifestyle grounded in Gospel values."

The policy does not propose to change the retirement age for priests, who can choose to request senior priest status at age 70 or at age 65, if they are unhealthy. Pastors, priests who head parishes, are required to offer to resign at age 75, but the archbishop is not required to accept the resignation.

The proposed policy says that ''becoming a senior priest does not mean that one no longer works; each individual is expected to continue to contribute actively to the church as long as he is physically able."

It is not clear how dramatic a change that is from current practice; many senior priests say Mass and perform other sacraments on an ad hoc basis.

The archdiocese pledges to continue to provide senior priests with a monthly stipend, medical, and dental benefits, and reimbursement of the costs of an annual retreat. But the stipends, under the draft policy, are calculated assuming that the priests are also receiving Social Security benefits.

The policy makes clear that priests who have personal financial resources will be expected to use those resources if they move to an assisted-living facility or nursing home. Diocesan priests do not take vows of poverty, and some have money or real estate given to them by their families. Those priests would be expected to contribute to the costs of such care until their assets, which are to be reported to the archdiocese, drop to $75,000.

Under the draft policy, the monthly stipend would be $1,889; from that amount they would be expected to pay a share of their housing costs and Medicare insurance premiums, which are now reimbursed by the archdiocese. Automatic cost-of-living adjustments would end. .

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