|O'Malley Resists Bill on Financial Disclosure
Encourages Catholics to Lobby against Measure
By Scott Helman and Frank Phillips
January 21, 2006
On the eve of a key vote, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has accused sponsors of a bill requiring religious organizations to disclose their finances of attempting to use the political process to assert control of the financial affairs and decisions of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
O'Malley's remarks, contained in a letter sent to every parish asking Catholics to lobby against the bill, immediately set off an angry response from the bill's lead sponsor, Senator Marian Walsh, Democrat of West Roxbury. Walsh said O'Malley was distorting the bill's impact and demanded in a letter to him yesterday that he stop his attempts to "place fears in the hearts of the public."
"What are they afraid of?" Walsh asked, alluding to archdiocesan officials.
The exchange of barbs between church officials and bill supporters and the increasingly aggressive lobbying of lawmakers in recent days underscore the high stakes as the bill arrives on the House floor next week. Lawmakers who support the measure say greater public scrutiny of religious institutions is needed, in part because of concerns raised during the clergy sexual abuse crisis and parish closings by the Boston Archdiocese.
In his letter, O'Malley accused the sponsors of seeking to "violate religious freedom," arguing that the legislation would give the state the power to overrule financial decisions by the Catholic Church. He said lawmakers who back it are doing so because they disagree with recent archdiocesan decisions regarding church closing and financial affairs.
"They want to use legislation as a means of exercising control over the affairs of the archdiocese and its parishes," O'Malley wrote in his first detailed statement against the bill. "This is not the role of government."
Walsh said the church is deliberately distorting the intent of the bill and its sponsors. The only motive, she said, is to make sure that the public can see where religious groups, which are legally considered public charities, are spending their money, and how they manage financial resources.
"This bill does not affect what any particular church believes or how they govern themselves," Walsh said. "That would clearly be a violation of the First Amendment."
Secretary of State William Galvin, who with Walsh has led the effort to get the bill passed, yesterday called O'Malley's letter "extraordinary," in that the church is asking parishioners to take political action to protect the church's administrators from financial disclosure.
"This is not about control of the church's finances or over its parishes," Galvin said. "The archbishop needs to answer where all the money is going."
The measure would require all religious entities in the state to file an annual form with the attorney general's office listing basic financial and organizational information. They would also have to list all real estate holdings.
In an attempt to defuse opposition on Beacon Hill and in the community, Walsh and other backers have drafted an amendment seeking to limit the proposed requirements to the largest religious entities in the state.
Under the amendment, only religious organizations with $500,000 or more in annual revenue would have to file a review of their finances by a certified public accountant every year. The original bill called for all those religious groups with revenue of $100,000 to file such a review. The amendment also raises to $1 million from $500,000 in annual revenue the threshold for filing a detailed, outside financial audit.
The amendment is designed to assuage concerns raised by smaller churches and religious groups around the state that a requirement for detailed financial information every year would force them to redirect money from food banks and other charitable initiatives to pay for accountants' fees.
"That would be a big chunk of money from what they would use to do the good things that they do in their parishes and in their community," said state Representative Kathleen M. Teahan, a Whitman Democrat.
But even if the amendment appeases smaller religious organizations, it does not lessen the opposition from the biggest players, including the Boston Archdiocese, the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Council of Churches. All have mounted aggressively lobbying campaigns in an attempt to kill the measure, believing it blurs the Constitutional line between church and state.
In fact, the Boston Archdiocese sees Teahan's amendment as further proof that the real intent is to give the government authority to scrutinize the Catholic Church.
The bill sends this message that "we don't care about the small ones; we just want the big guys," said Edward F. Saunders Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state's four Roman Catholic dioceses.
"It just strengthens the argument that the reason this bill was filed was to punish the Archdiocese of Boston," said Saunders, who was busy lobbying lawmakers in the State House Thursday.
A similar bill has already passed the Senate, but as part of a different bill, so if the House passes its version next week, it would also have to win Senate approval to get to Governor Mitt Romney's desk. Romney signaled support for such a bill last year, though he stopped short of endorsing it. Other denominations reiterated their opposition to the bill yesterday.
Alan Teperow, executive director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, said his organization sent out announcements to congregations around the state urging people to contact their legislators.
The Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents 17 Protestant and Orthodox denominations with a total of 1,700 congregations, continues to argue that the sponsors' intentions are misplaced. "The state is being enlisted into an internal debate in the Roman Catholic Church," said Laura Everett, associate director of the council.
In November, Protestant leaders, led by the Massachusetts Council of Churches, were able to hold off a House vote on the measure after meeting with House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com. Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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