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Spotlight Report

Deep cuts loom in spending by church

Scandal, economy cited in fund-raising shortfall

By Walter V. Robinson and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 3/5/2003

Reeling from the combined effects of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and a down economy, the Archdiocese of Boston is likely to fall $100 million short of its $300 million capital campaign goal. Also, deep new cuts in annual spending by the chancery are likely to force parish and school closings in large numbers, archdiocesan officials said yesterday.

The bad fiscal news was delivered to pastors on Monday by Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the interim administrator of the archdiocese: The chancery's next budget will have to be cut by at least $4 million. That is a 20 percent reduction on top of the 30 percent cut imposed last year.

Church documents and interviews with church officials point to other grim indicators:

* In 2002 alone, the ranks of active diocesan priests in the archdiocese dropped by 10 percent, due largely to the removal of those who were accused of molesting minors. That leaves the archdiocese with less than half the number of active priests it had two decades ago -- an added incentive for the archdiocese to combine sparsely attended parishes.

* The archdiocese's annual parish-by-parish head count shows a substantial drop in Mass attendance since the scandal broke. The annual survey, taken in October, showed a 14 percent decrease from a year earlier in the number who attend Mass. That puts weekly Mass attendance below 300,000 in an archdiocese that claims 2.1 million Catholics.

* The ambitious $300 million capital campaign, launched in 2001 to fund a wide range of programs, came to a near standstill after the scandal exploded 14 months ago. Total pledges appear to have topped out short of $200 million. One major donor withdrew a pledge of more than $20 million because of the economic downturn. But church officials acknowledge that the scandal is responsible for half or more of the $100 million expected shortfall.

* The major fund-raising effort for the chancery's annual budget, called the Cardinal's Appeal, raised just $8.4 million in 2002, less than half of its $17.4 million goal.

With the departure of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who long resisted cost-cutting measures in favor of deficit spending, many pastors have anticipated a painful reckoning, with the closure of many parishes and schools and a significant erosion of the archdiocese's ability to help the needy.

But David W. Smith, the archdiocese's chancellor, said yesterday that while the process of identifying the $4 million in budget cuts is far from complete, he is confident the cuts will be imposed with compassion and ''will favor the poor.'' He added: ''We are looking to serve the rich and the poor in the most cost-effective way possible.''

The fiscal travails are in addition to legal claims against the archdocese by approximately 500 people who say they were sexually abused by priests. It is estimated those claims could cost the archdiocese more than $100 million to settle, and the chancery has already begun selling real estate to raise some of those funds.

For much of last year, Law had cut himself off from many of the church's most influential and wealthy lay members because of their criticism of his treatment of sexually abusive priests. With Law gone and the church's finances in jeopardy, Lennon has yet to seek out those laypeople and the financial help they might provide.

''We want to help, but someone has to ask,'' Jack Connors Jr., the chairman of the advertising firm Hill Holliday and one of a number of prominent Catholics who had called for Law's resignation as archbishop, said yesterday when he learned about the seriousness of the problem.

''If people are asked to participate, and their opinions are sought, and their involvement is solicited, the money will follow, and we can get back to the mission of growth for the church instead of this shrinkage,'' said Connors, who has said the church cannot regain its footing without giving its lay members a greater role in church governance.

The Rev. Francis J. Cloherty, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Brockton and a regional vicar with oversight of 18 parishes in nine communities, said the scandal and its fiscal fallout will almost certainly force a reduction in the number of parishes, a step he and other pastors said is long overdue.

Cloherty said he is is now working to absorb another Brockton parish, St. Margaret's, into his own, a decision forced by the economics of declining attendance, a shortage of clergy, and the prospect of repairs to St. Margaret's that could total more than $1 million

''People are going to have to make some painful adjustments,'' said Cloherty. ''They're going to lose the building where their parents got married and where they received their First Communion and where they themselves were married.''

What is happening in Brockton, Cloherty said, is an exercise likely to be repeated throughout the archdiocese.

''There are a lot of priests who knew this had to happen,'' said Cloherty. ''I'm sorry to see it happen this way. Kids are going to get hurt. Families are going to get hurt. Who would have believed that it would happen this way with the scandal? But this is the way it happened. You had people in place who weren't capable of facing this.''

Until several years ago, Cloherty said, Brockton was a city with nine Catholic churches. It now has seven.

''The total population attending Mass on weekends is 7,000 to 10,000 and you don't need nine buildings for that,'' he said. ''You don't.''

Even without its serious fiscal predicament -- a ''financial free fall,'' as one specialist in church finances described it yesterday -- the dwindling number of priests, if nothing else, suggests that parish closings are in the offing.

In 1981, for example, the archdiocese had 1,072 active diocesan priests within the archdiocese -- not including priests who are retired or disabled. That number is now down to 505, according to the 2003 archdiocesan directory, which became available this week. A year earlier, it was 555.

Parish closures, in contrast, have been minimal. The archdiocese has closed just 10 percent of the 408 parishes it had in 1981.

Smith, the chancellor, declined to discuss the possibility of parish closings. But several pastors said they would not be surprised if Lennon -- or the archbishop who replaces him -- is forced to close 30 or 40 parishes.

But where? Not in growing suburbs, where many parishes are overcrowded. Many of the parishes that have the lowest number of parishioners are in poor urban areas, and are most often within walking distance of other, lightly attended parishes.

South Boston, for instance, has seven Catholic churches within its four square miles. Lowell and Lawrence together have 20 Catholic parishes. Dorchester has 11, and Cambridge 10. But even some affluent inner suburbs, by some estimates, have more churches than they need. The city of Newton, for example, has seven parishes -- and nearly 40 percent of Newton's Catholics belong to just one of those, Our Lady Help of Christians.

Falling church attendance may also provide an impetus for parish closings. When the archdiocese did its annual October head count at weekend Masses in 2001, it found that weekly attendance was 345,000. But last October, after months of revelations about clergy sexual abuse, weekly attendance had dropped 14 percent, to just under 300,000.

But the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, who made those numbers available, said there were wide variations: Some parishes reported increased attendance, while the falloff in attendance exceeded 30 percent at a handful of parishes.

The Rev. Daniel J. Riley, pastor of St. William Church in Dorchester, where donations and attendance are off 15 percent from late 2001 levels, said the worsening budget picture at the chancery means difficult decisions are ahead for Lennon.

''He's said he's got tough decisions and he's going to make them,'' Riley said. ''I give him credit for confronting the situation and dealing with reality.''

The new reality for pastors like Riley is that they can no longer look to the chancery as a financial ''backstop.''

''They were always there to back us up and now the money's not there to enable them to provide that back-up,'' Riley said. ''They provided a crucial service to parishes . . . In parishes poorer than mine, they would forgive loans and payments. So this is scary for the poorer parishes.''

Judging from Cloherty's experience, closing a parish can be a formidable task.

He pointed to the 2001 closure of Our Lady of Ostrobrama as a vivid example. The Polish church in Brockton had been led for 64 years by the Rev. John B. Missa, who died at age 92 in March 2001.

In its last full year of operation, the church's congregation had declined dramatically. Just three children were baptized. Not a single wedding was celebrated there.

Yet to this day, former parishioners still arrive every Sunday morning to protest the closure of Our Lady of Ostrobrama.

Cloherty said the church has been slow to recognize the socio-economics of changing neighborhoods, particularly the major shift of Catholic populations from cities to suburbs.

''Because the church has, unfortunately, put loyalty and obedience at such a high priority, they have not looked at creativity and have, in fact, discouraged that,'' he said. ''When you have that kind of leadership rampant in the clergy, you're not going to have too many people asking: What are we doing?''

Monsignor Francis H. Kelley, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Roslindale, said he was told in January that the annual subsidy for one of the two parochial schools he runs will end. Kelley said he will try to keep both open.

But he added, ''We're coming to a time where we have to say that we can't do this anymore.''

Matthew Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Walter Robinson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/5/2003.
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