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Spotlight Report

  James E. Post  

Cardinal Law's $10 million mistake


A small gathering of Boston-area Catholics grew into Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay reform group.  
Coverage of Voice of the Faithful
CARDINAL Bernard Law's decision to refuse contributions from a charitable fund called the ''Voice of Compassion'' is an unwise and costly mistake. Although he may not intend it, his refusal seems to pour salt into the wounds of a shocked and embittered Catholic laity.

By conservative estimates, the sexual abuse scandal has cost the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston an estimated $10 million in lost revenue. This loss of revenue is almost entirely attributable to the meltdown of the cardinal's reputation. Regrettably, Cardinal Law's past fund-raising was so personalized that the bitter controversy surrounding his tenure is now doing severe damage to every Catholic charity that once depended on his fund-raising largesse.

The Cardinal's Garden Party, a springtime fund-raiser, was cancel ed at a loss of more than $1 million to Catholic Charities. The annual Cardinal's Appeal, the single largest source of revenue for archdiocesan operations and intended to raise $17 million, has been boycotted by thousands of Catholics who normally support the fund. Unable to see where their money would go amid the disclosure of secret funds, hidden payments to victims, and triple-digit hourly fees to the cardinal's lawyers, they have decided to sit on the sidelines. Compared with last year, the Cardinal's Appeal has barely reached 57 percent of its goal, leaving a projected revenue shortfall of more than $7 million. Now, general gifts and bequests to the church are falling off as well. To make matters worse, there are no reserves to cover the shortfall. The archdiocese has operated in the red for years and was on a budget reduction plan even before the sexual abuse scandal broke. The Archdiocese of Boston faces tens of millions of dollars of legal liability that are not covered by insurance. The result, by any measure, is a disaster for Catholic social services and ministries. In a difficult economic climate when public programs are also being cut, this crisis ultimately touches every citizen of Massachusetts.

The severity of the fiscal crisis is evident in the numbers. As much as $10 million may have to be taken out of a budget that began the current fiscal year at $24 million - a cut of 40 percent. Many programs have already been forced to close operations, lay off employees, and halt services to the elderly, children, and those with health problems.

Against this backdrop, on July 22, Cardinal Law announced that the Archdiocese of Boston will not accept donations from the laity that are channeled through an initiative called the Voice of Compassion. Sponsored by Voice of the Faithful, the fund is administered by the National Catholic Community Foundation and allows donors to make tax-free donations that will be distributed to support direct expenses of programs and ministries hurt by the failure of the Cardinal's Appeal. This system is both funded and managed by the laity and incorporates elements of transparency and accountability missing from archdiocesan fund-raising.

In rejecting the initiative, the chancery alleged that the initiative might interfere with the customary giving patterns in the archdiocese. This is nonsense. It is unmistakable that customary giving patterns have already been shattered by a scandal whose roots go back to the cardinal's own conduct. Thousands of Catholic donors are sitting on the sidelines, refusing to give to the Cardinal's Appeal.

The second allegation is that such donations would interfere with the ''pastoral relationship'' between the bishop and his people. We strongly disagree with this assertion, since the sexual abuse scandal itself has markedly shattered that relationship. The true ''wedge issue'' is the decision-making that moved sexually abusive priests from parish to parish, where they continued to prey on hundreds of innocent children, markedly shattering the pastoral relationship between Cardinal Law and the people of Boston.

It is the work of the laity to repair this damage that gave rise to Voice of the Faithful, an organization that now numbers more than 22,000 members. Our intention is to use the Voice of the Compassion to provide donors with public accountability, something that is lacking now. Currently, the resource allocation process used by the diocese remains in darkness, building suspicion at a vulnerable time.

The leaders of the archdiocese still have the power to address this problem.

First, archdiocesan officials should actually talk with Voice of the Faithful leaders to learn how the Voice of Compassion fund will operate. Voice of the Faithful sought to open a channel of communications with the archdiocese for the explicit purpose of discussing this fund as far back as June 19th with no reply. It is time for chancery officials to return the group's phone calls before denouncing its initiatives.

Second, chancery officials should redesign the Cardinal's Appeal as a donor-designated fund to allow donors to direct gifts toward specific programs. This would shed needed sunlight on the resource allocation process and help overcome the distrust that many Catholic donors harbor about archdiocesan administration.

Third, the cardinal and auxiliary bishops should ''walk the streets'' and talk with program administrators, employees, and clients all across the archdiocese. They should learn what is happening and feel the very real pain this scandal is causing in the lives of people they vowed to serve.

We ask the cardinal to reconsider his position on the Voice of Compassion and accept the offering of the laity seeking to help the needy. Such a response, born of generosity of spirit and genuine concern for others, is truly worthy of his great office. On the other hand, a sharp rejection based on dubious grounds only engenders the bitterness and mistrust we all want to avoid.

James E. Post, a professor at Boston University's School of Management, is co-founder and president of Voice of the Faithful.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 8/8/2002.
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