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  Reason for Anger

By Adrian Walker
Boston Globe
January 26, 2006

http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2006/01/26/reason_for_anger/

Disappointment mixed with fury in Senator Marian Walsh's voice yesterday after it became obvious that her bill calling for financial disclosure by churches was well on its way to being crushed.

It was artful, really, the way the opponents of the bill had orchestrated their efforts and convinced nearly everyone that the vote remained close, the better to keep their supporters united and energized.

"This is our process; I accept that," said Walsh, a West Roxbury Democrat. "But we have a lot of public charities that are accountable to no one."

Not long ago, the clergy sexual abuse scandal was widely believed to have severely diluted the influence wielded on Beacon Hill by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

Yesterday, that theory was forcefully consigned to the recycle bin.

Walsh said she believed her bill had more than 100 votes in November. That may be hard to believe, considering that it went down in flames 147 to 3. That was three votes for a bill that had 39 cosponsors.

"I never saw the religious community so ecumenical," Walsh noted. "I wish they were this united on fighting for the rights of children."

The bill would have required religious institutions to release the same financial information that other nonprofits do, as well as annual audited financial statements from large groups.

While the measure was clearly aimed at the Catholic Church in response to the financial turmoil that followed the abuse scandal, a spectrum of religious groups banded together to shoot down the bill, mostly with a legally dubious assertion that such disclosure would violate the separation of church and state.

Thomas P. O'Neill III, the former lieutenant governor, was among those who thought the measure had a chance of healing some of the lingering wounds from the scandal. To him it was an issue of transparency.

"I'm for it because I think it would create some open air for the Archdiocese of Boston and other churches to show people how they collect money, spend money, and use it for their mission," he said yesterday. "I think showing transparency could help them raise money."

But transparency was just the issue; the churches don't want transparency, and they don't want to establish the precedent that government can require them to do anything. They have no intention of living in the same world as the rest of us, scandal notwithstanding.

"Churches are probably the most powerful institutions in the state, and the sacred cow is money," Walsh said. "They seem to want all the privilege and support of the public, and they don't want any of the responsibility."

The Archdiocese of Boston was far from alone in waging this battle. The Black Ministerial Alliance, among other groups, weighed in heavily against the bill, with no prodding from outside, according to its director.

"Senator Walsh said people don't understand the bill and its intent," said Harold Sparrow, executive director of the group. "I find that patronizing. We understand the bill; we just don't agree with it. They try to say churches are charities. We are not a charity. It's an aspect of what we do, but not the whole game."

Obviously, the idea of financial disclosure is dead for the foreseeable future. Walsh said she would like to see religious organizations put forth their own proposal for improved transparency, but that's little more than a fantasy.

It was suggested yesterday that Walsh remains angry about the abuse scandal. She should, and she would have a lot of company in that regard. The implication that the two issues are related is absolutely true; a lack of openness allowed abuse for decades. And the archdiocese still opposes openness, at least on any terms it doesn't get to dictate. As for the Legislature, it took the path of least resistance, which shouldn't surprise anyone.

"I'm happy that we have tried," Walsh said. "People don't agree with me, but I have the peace of mind that I made the effort."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com

 
 

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