Catholic Bishops Angry over Proposed Law
McDonald Sponsors Bill Stripping Dioceses of Control

The Advocate
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 state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, and state 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.

Saying it would undercut the Catholic church's financial hierarchy, the state's bishops on Sunday urged parishioners to fight the proposed state law that would allow them to control their individual parish's financial affairs.

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.

But McDonald said the bill did no such thing. He emphasized that any parish wishing to could leave its affairs under diocesan control. The measure also leaves to bishops and priests "matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices."

According to McDonald, the immediate impetus behind the bill was what he called the worst case of financial mismanagement in a Connecticut Catholic parish, in which Fay was convicted of stealing up to $1.4 million from lay donations, as well as an ongoing investigation in Greenwich.

He said he was asked by his constituents, who felt victimized by the events at St. John Church in Darien, as well as other Catholic faithful throughout the diocese who want to see more "transparency" relating to the funds they contribute.

"This has been submitted by parishioners who are devout in their faith," McDonald said.

Lori 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 bishops' announcement touched off an immediate uproar from parishioners who saw the proposal as an affront to their traditions..

"I'm upset by it," said William Mortimer of Bridgeport, who attended Mass at Assumption Church in Fairfield. "I'm amazed that this bill is being considered by these two legislators."

Mary Sholomicky, 49, of Stratford, said she heard about the proposed law by attending the noon Mass at Our Lady of Grace parish.

"It was quite a shock because of the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to practice religion. If I didn't want to do that, I'd live in China. Any person of any religious denomination should really be nervous. They are targeting Catholics now; who knows who's next down the road six months, six years," she said.

Sholomicky said the law "would take away the authority of the bishop, the priests and the pope."

Philip Lacovara, a lawyer who attends St. Aloysius Parish in New Canaan, said the bill isn't even constitutional.

Pointing to an opinion from the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in a case relating to the Serbian Orthodox Church, Lacovara said the Catholic church has the authority to decide its own governance.

"The church is the entity that decides how it will be organized," he said.

But Paul Lakeland, the Rev. Aloysius P. Kelley, S.J., professor of Catholic Studies and chair of the Catholic Studies Department at Fairfield University, disagreed.

"This legislation is not an interference with the free exercise of religion," he said, noting bishops would still retain their say over doctrinal matters.

In fact, he added, in some jurisdictions, such as Philadelphia and New York, the laity had a strong tradition of parish oversight that changed with time.

"No one who supports the present situation in the church can say it's always been that way," Lakeland said.

Tom Gallagher, a Greenwich resident whose Catholic activism extends to membership in the Knights of Columbus, Order of Malta and Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, and three years as pro-bono administrator of the Mother Theresa Center in New York, said he has long believed the diocesan parishes should operate differently than the current model adopted in the late 1960s.

He argued under that system, the bishop and vicar general serve on 87 individual boards, something that isn't practical. "We can organize ourselves in a much better fashion," he said.

Dan Sullivan, like Lacovara a lawyer who attends St. Aloysius, said changing the structure could be a boon to pastors.

Sullivan said, like Gallagher, he would like some adjustments to the bill -- such as allowing the bishops and pastors to vote on the boards -- but he noted pastors are drawn to their roles not to run financial affairs.

"They would be able to devote more time to the jobs that they trained for," Sullivan said.

Fay 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, who is serving a three-year prison term, shopped at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, drove a Jaguar, attended a sports club, bought jewelry from Cartier, spent $130,000 for limo rides for himself and his mother, and stayed at hotels such as the Ritz Carlton, Hotel De Paris and the Four Seasons, according to an investigative report released last year by the Bridgeport Diocese.

He spent tens of thousands of dollars on home furnishings and meals and more than $20,000 to mark the 25th anniversary of his ordination.

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, provide for auditing of financial records, develop and implement strategic plans.

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."

In Greenwich, the Rev. Michael Moynihan resigned in January after a preliminary audit uncovered $500,000 in spending the church couldn't account for amid what Lori said at the least represented "badly tangled" financial records.

According to the measure, the bishop and priests would remain in charge of "matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices."

McDonald said that currently financial responsibilities are focused on the pastor, and "there're no controls in place" allowing parishioners to examine where their funds go.

No matter how the current bill plays out, Lakeland said the debate is a good thing. "I'm delighted by this whether it passes or not," he said.


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