Bill Shifts Fiscal Control of Parishes
Fay Theft Spurs Legislation to Give Laypersons Control of Purse Strings

Greenwich Times
March 8, 2009

After a priest stole $1.4 million from a church in Darien, state legislators have proposed a law that would regulate how parishes are controlled and operated.

The state's Catholic bishops rallied opposition from the pulpits at weekend Masses.

The law essentially would strip the dioceses of all financial control of parishes and leave bishops and priests to oversee "matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices." A board of elected laypersons would handle parish finances.

The bill, introduced Thursday by the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, and Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, caught many Catholics by surprise. They heard about it during Masses.

McDonald introduced the bill at the request of members of St. John Church on the Post Road in Darien, where the former pastor, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, was convicted of stealing from parishioners over several years.

In a statement read at Masses, Bishop William Lori of the Diocese of Bridgeport delivered a harsh rebuke, charging the bill "directly attacks the Roman Catholic Church and our faith" and is a "thinly veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage."

The "irrational, unlawful and bigoted bill jeopardizes the religious liberty of our church," Lori said.

He and Hartford Bishop Henry Mansell asked parishioners to attend a Judiciary Committee public hearing

Wednesday in Hartford to protest the bill.

The hearing is scheduled to begin at noon in Room 2C in the Legislative Office Building. Several parishes are organizing bus transportation to the hearing.

The impetus behind the bill is the case of Fay, who was convicted in 2007 of stealing $1.4 million from St. John Roman Catholic Church in Darien to fund a life of luxury with his boyfriend. Fay spent money on limousines, stays at top hotels, jewelry, Italian clothing and a Florida condominium he shared with his boyfriend, auditors hired by the diocese found. About half the money he spent was kept in a secret bank account.

Fay is serving a three-year prison term.

Lawlor said the bill would revise a 1955 religious corporation act requiring churches to open up financial records.

If passed into law, parishes would be governed by an elected board of laypersons that would have the power to establish and approve church budgets, manage all financial affairs, and provide for auditing of financial records.

The pastor of the congregation would report to the board of directors on all "administrative and financial matters," the bill reads.

"This bill violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," Lori said in his statement. "It forces a radical reorganization of the legal, financial and administrative structure of our parishes. This is contrary to the apostolic nature of the Catholic Church because it disconnects parishes from their pastors and their bishop. Parishes would be run by boards from which their pastors and the bishops would effectively be excluded."

He continued, "The state has no right to interfere in the internal affairs and structure of the Catholic church. This bill is directed only at the Catholic church, but would someday be forced on other denominations. The state has no business controlling religion.

"For the state legislature -- which has not reversed a $1 billion deficit in the fiscal year -- to try to manage the Catholic church makes no sense. The Catholic church not only lives within her means, but stretches her resources to provide more social, charitable and educational services than many other private institution in the state. This bill threatens those services at a time when the state is cutting services. The Catholic church is needed now more than ever," Lori said.

The Rev. Greg Markey of St. Mary Church in Norwalk, who is leading his parish's delegation to the hearing Wednesday, said in a statement that the bill "directly attacks the Roman Catholic Church " should it pass, the bishops and pastors will be deprived of any administrative, financial and legal power over their parishes."


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