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  Priest Scandal Depresses Diocese Budget Already Hurting from Feeble Economy

By Alan Scher Zagier aszagier@naplesnews.com
Naples Daily News [Venice FL]
July 20, 2003

The letters arrive without fail at the Catholic Diocese of Venice headquarters near Sarasota, responses to the annual appeal by Bishop John Nevins for charitable donations to help the poor and downtrodden.

Normally, those letters from the Southwest Florida faithful include ample contributions. But as the Venice diocese and others throughout the country continue to struggle with fallout from the priest sex abuse scandal, these are anything but normal times.

The checks still arrive but some come with "VOID" written in place of an amount. There are copies of checks written to other charities, or probing questions about where the contributions wind up.

Donations to the bishop's appeal this year are nearly $1 million behind last year's campaign a decline diocese officials acknowledge is due in part to public dissatisfaction over the bishops' collective handling of abuse claims.

The shortfall forced the Venice diocese to cut its annual budget by $1.5 million, eliminating eight jobs and reducing pastoral outreach.

Charities of all stripes, from the United Way to Habitat for Humanity, are getting less money from donors caught up in a slumping economy and a stagnant stock market, said William McCarthy, development director for the diocese.

But the elevation of priest misconduct into a national issue has clearly hurt the diocese in its wallet, he said.

"There's no question it's had an impact," McCarthy said.

To understand the impact, look no further than St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in North Naples, an affluent parish where the weekly collection plate yielded more than $1.8 million last year.

For the week ending June 22, church members donated $19,654 to the collection plate, a slight decrease from the $20,230 collected during the same period last year, according to a St. John's church bulletin.

The bishop's appeal, on the other hand, had generated a yearly total of $181,259 far short of the church's $503,000 goal. With only one week remaining in the church's fiscal year, the goal remained out of reach.

The discrepancy is an obvious swipe at Nevins' leadership, said Ted Blount, a St. John's parishioner and secretary of the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic reform group.

"People don't want to give to the bishops because they blame the bishops for everything going on," he said. "Catholics generally look at all bishops as a group and say, 'We're not going to give you more money until you get your act together.'"

The financial woes are particularly acute in Boston, where the removal of dozens of priests on allegations of sexually abusing minors has led to a $13 million shortfall in expected contributions and a nearly $10 million budget gap.

In Los Angeles, the Roman Catholic archdiocese has cut 60 jobs to help reduce a $13.4 million budget deficit. In Denver, 30 jobs were recently eliminated by the archdiocese.

Admittedly, the known scope of the sex abuse crisis is much smaller by comparison within the Venice diocese, which oversees 54 parishes and more than 260 priests in 10 Southwest Florida counties, including Collier and Lee.

Three retired Diocese of Venice priests each of whom once worked in Naples or Marco Island were suspended in May 2002 by their diocese on sex abuse allegations. Two of those three subsequently were removed from the priesthood; the third, the Rev. Neil Flemming, former pastor of St. William Catholic Church in Naples, remains under investigation.

The Venice diocese last year reported paying approximately $1.5 million to settle sexual abuse lawsuits and other complaints lodged since its 1985 spin-off from the Miami archdiocese. Included in that amount is a $550,000 payment to the family of a 13-year-old girl repeatedly abused by a Fort Myers priest who later went to jail and is no longer in the clergy.

According to the diocese's most recent financial statement, a two-page report for fiscal 2001-02 published in March in The Florida Catholic newspaper, the annual bishop appeal accounts for 84 percent of diocese revenues. So when the appeal comes up short, so does much of the church's good works.

In Bonita Springs, the Hispanic Services of Catholic Charities is struggling to pay for its back-to-school programs, tutoring efforts, prenatal classes and other services, said Susan Vasilev, an agency spokeswoman. While the program doesn't rely solely on diocese support, it's feeling the effect of the decline in charitable donations across the board, she said.

"Our population is growing. Our need for services is growing," Vasilev said. "If we don't have the funding for it, it makes our days pretty sad."

Vasilev expressed regret that the sex abuse problem among priests has trickled down to affect the migrant workers and immigrants who depend on Catholic Charities for help.

"It's unfortunate," she said. "That has nothing to do with our needs, or the people we serve."

At the diocesan level, the fiscal woes led to a cancellation of all raises for lay employees and priests; the dissolution of a pastoral ministries department, which was reconfigured into four smaller departments; and the replacement of two priests who worked full-time in campus ministry with church deacons or lay volunteers.

For noted Catholic scholar Eugene Kennedy, an author, professor emeritus at Loyola University in Chicago and part-time Naples resident, the transformation of the priest sex abuse crisis into a financial crisis is to be expected.

Angry and upset over what they deem a failure in leadership, faithful Catholics have struck back in one of the only ways possible, he said via their pocketbooks.

"The withholding of funds is one of the last things they want to do," Kennedy said. "These people want to believe in the church. It's not a crisis of faith. It's a crisis of confidence and leadership."

"They regret it. They're reluctant to do it," he added. "But when people don't hear you, you finally speak in a language they can understand."

For Blount, a retired lawyer who lives in Bonita, one step the church in general and the Venice diocese in particular can take to win back the trust of its flock is to further open financial records.

While the diocese does issue the two-page, annual financial summary, more transparency is needed, he said.

"It's less than complete," the activist said. "We believe there should be full disclosure of all diocese finances on a regular basis by independent accountants. ... That's one of the biggest concerns of church members today."

At the same time, Nevins and other bishops must elevate their spiritual connection with the laity, Kennedy said.

He expects an uphill climb.

"He and his brothers have been caught up in a problem whose demands go beyond the reasons they were made bishops," Kennedy said. "They are equipped with the administrator's gift in a church that demands spiritual leadership. This is a human problem."

 
 

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