Bolstering the Faith in Finances of Diocese

Times Leader [Scranton PA]
Downloaded April 5, 2004

THIS IS THE nature of faith: You believe in something without seeing, without proof.

Organized religions survive on public trust in keepers of the faith, the men and women who preach it, who stand at the pulpits and seek funds to maintain and spread the faith.

If that trust is breached, it causes doubt that can lead to outright disbelief. That's the nature of faith.

In the Diocese of Scranton, someone - probably several people - broke trust by letting debts of parishes and schools grow to a total of $11 million while many parishioners thought everything was fine.

The debt came to light when Pittston area parents rallied to save St. John the Baptist Elementary, one of two schools - the other is St. Mary's in Avoca - the diocese plans to close.

Pittston supporters eagerly offered to raise money to save their beloved classrooms. Problem is, they have to raise a lot of money.

When Diocese Spokeswoman Maria Orzel revealed the $11 million debt, she said $1 million of that is owed by parishes and schools in region 7, home to the two schools scheduled to be shuttered.

Orzel wouldn't say which parishes owe the diocese money, how much each owes, or how long the debts have been accumulating.

As a private, nonprofit organization, the diocese has the right to withhold that information from the media. We, of course, think it should be made public. But more important, as the spiritual center for Catholics in 11 counties, the diocese owes its constituents answers.

When did the debts first emerge? Were they unavoidable, or was money mismanaged? Could the big problem causing school closings now have been nipped in the bud years ago with a rigorous effort by parishioners and priests?

Why were the average people, the backbone of the diocese, caught unaware? Were there public messages no one noticed? Did priests understand what debts their churches faced but fail to bring the problem to the parishioners? Or did someone decide to hide truth rather than face consequences?

The diocese is still struggling with the open wound caused by the priest sex scandal. It can ill-afford a second festering sore created through financial secrecy.

Bishop Joseph Martino, still new to the area, should pry open the books beyond the terse annual financial statement published in the Diocese newspaper, The Catholic Light. He should give marching orders to every church pastor to make sure parishioners get details of money problems, big and small.

He should spell out the intricate web of financial links between churches, schools, clergy - all said to have some autonomy - and the diocese.

We're willing to bet most parishes would find a wellspring of people like those Pittston parents, ready to help and sacrifice as long as they know why.

But Martino needs to clear the air for a far more vital reason.

He owes it to the faithful, if he wants them to stay that way.


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