Local Clergy Oppose Audit Legislation

By Kathleen A. Shaw
Telegram & Gazette
January 24, 2006

WORCESTER— The Rev. Aaron R. Payson, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester, said yesterday proposed legislation to require religious institutions to file financial audits and reports to the state is a violation of the separation of church and state and will put undue hardship on small religious congregations.

Rev. Payson is among local clergy who oppose Senate Bill 1074, which will come for a hearing before the House of Representatives at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Statehouse. Several local clergy have been contacting area legislators to present their views on the bill, according to Frank T. Kartheiser of Worcester Interfaith.

Bishop Robert J. McManus of the Catholic Diocese of Worcester has also asked people in the diocese's 126 parishes to contact legislators to oppose the bill. The bill is also opposed by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference and the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

Timothy Lyons, spokesman for state Sen. Marian D. Walsh, D-Boston, said yesterday in a meeting with interfaith clergy from across the state that legislators believe they have dealt with some of the concerns. A proposed amendment to the bill was filed by state Rep. Kathleen M. Teahan, D-Whitman, to require a full audit of religious congregations bringing in more than $1 million a year; congregations taking in less money would require only a letter from an auditor, he said. The current proposed bill requires an audit at the $500,000 mark and a letter from an auditor for congregations that bring in less than that amount.

Mr. Lyons said Ms. Walsh's staff has been trying to correct "misinformation" that is circulating about potential effects of the legislation. He said it is not true that Roman Catholic parishes would be required to take on the extra expense of an audit. "A parish is not a legal entity," he said.

The responsibility for reporting is on the dioceses or the bishops, who legally operate as a corporation, Mr. Lyons said. Bishop McManus told parishes they could be saddled with audit expenses ranging from $10,000 to $15,000 a year.

Rev. Payson said no members of the clergy he has spoken with are against financial "transparency." He said most religious congregations have financial accountability because their committees report to the congregations at least annually and often monthly. Everyone in his congregation knows how much money he makes each year because church members can see the budget, Rev. Payson said.

Ms. Walsh, who sponsored the bill, appears to be motivated by concerns within her own religious tradition, Rev. Payson said. Ms. Walsh, a Roman Catholic, has been frustrated by the lack of public financial accountability by the Boston Archdiocese. Rev. Payson said laws already exist to deal with the issues in the Catholic church raised by Ms. Walsh. She could have gone to Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and asked for an investigation, he said.

Rev. Payson said he sees a number of other problems with the proposed legislation. He believes passage would put the state on the "slippery slope" toward state regulation of religious congregations. He questioned what the penalty would be for noncompliance. Opening the door to state oversight might ultimately lead to attempts at taxing religious property, he said.

He noted that religious congregations receiving public funding must account for the money to state and federal authorities, but said he finds it intrusive that the state might be looking into the affairs of congregations, including his own, that are supported only by voluntary donations by members. The financial management in the congregations is usually done by volunteers, and having to hire an outside auditor would pose a hardship to smaller congregations, he said.

A religious institution is not the same as a nonprofit charity, Rev. Payson said, adding that the proposed legislation does not make the distinction.

Rev. Payson also said the proposed legislation makes no distinction among the different ways that religious groups are governed. The Catholic church is a hierarchal church, while many Protestant churches are independent, and some are solely owned by their members.

The financial reporting bill is one of three major bills that arose from the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church and the closing of parishes in the Boston Archdiocese.

Susan Renehan of Southbridge, co-director of the state Coalition to Reform Sexual Abuse Laws, said yesterday a hearing on a proposal to repeal the statute of limitations in cases of child sexual abuse has been scheduled for 1 p.m. March 7 in Room B1 of the Statehouse. The proposed change in the charitable immunity cap of $20,000 in cases of child sexual abuse is also coming for a hearing on the same day.

Ms. Renehan said she supports Ms. Walsh's bill. "If they do not want to account to the state, then they shouldn't be getting the tax-exempt status," she said.


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