Bishops urge state to stop cuts for poor

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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The state’s four Catholic bishops called on elected officials yesterday to protect the poor from painful service cuts despite enormous budget shortfalls created by the recession. They also pledged to do all they could to help Catholic parishes, schools, health care, and social service agencies redouble their efforts to help those in need.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston, Bishop George W. Coleman of Fall River, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield, and Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester said in a joint statement that they understood that city and state officials are facing “excruciating choices’’ this year, but said that basic human needs must be met.

“We caution that while the temptation to turn away from the growing social needs confronting our cities and towns may seem attractive, especially when our own personal budgets are squeezed, our capacity to move beyond the many complex problems we face today depends on our willingness to overcome that temptation,’’ the bishops wrote.

The bishops spoke as the state faces a projected $1.2 billion budget gap. Earlier this month, Governor Deval Patrick proposed a spending plan for the coming year that would cut spending by 1.8 percent, or $570 million. His budget would slash a multitude of human service programs, including early intervention for children with developmental delays, school health services, services for the mentally ill, and a program for low-income pregnant women.

In an interview yesterday, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray said that the administration is doing its best to find savings without hurting services and in some cases has devised ways to save by making programs more efficient. But he acknowledged that the loss of stimulus money and a diminished rainy day fund will probably mean painful cuts.

“There’s no doubt that poor people and vulnerable populations are going to be impacted by this budget and this economy, and we’re trying to do our part,’’ he said. “I applaud the bishops for their willingness to try to do more; the governor and I have said we need individuals, businesses, and faith communities to step up and fill this gap, because government cannot do it alone.’’

The Catholic church is also facing serious financial challenges; about 40 percent of parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston are expected to end the 2011 fiscal year in the red, and the archdiocese eliminated a number of staff positions last summer. The archdiocese recently sold its chain of Catholic hospitals to a for-profit entity that agreed to assume $495 million in unfunded pension obligations and outstanding debt the hospitals had accumulated.

Catholic parishioners and volunteers are hurting, too.

“One of the most telling experiences at Catholic Charities these days are the situations where people who have been our donors are now our clients,’’ said the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, secretary of health care and social services for the Archdiocese of Boston and a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The bishops’ statement is one of a series of efforts they have made since the recession to remind Catholics of the church’s social teaching, which places a special focus on caring for the poor and addressing issues of social and economic justice.

Hehir said the archdiocese is asking parishes to help the needy, including people who have recently lost their jobs or homes and need assistance for the first time. The church will also continue to monitor legislative action in this area, he said, and local Catholic agencies will work to enhance services despite limited budgets.

Thomas Groome, chairman of the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College, called the bishops’ statement “the Catholic Church at its best.’’

“They have been distracted by other issues of late, but I’m delighted to see the bishops returning to this kind of moral stance and civil voice in our society,’’ he said. “I think it will be heard as sincere and authentic, by not only our own congregants and parishioners, but I think by public officials and many people of goodwill.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at