Conn. Catholic Bishops Condemn Bill on Finances

Associated Press, carried in Hartford Courant
March 9, 2009,0,1641169.story

HARTFORD, Conn. - Leaders of a top legislative committee in Connecticut are taking the brunt of criticism over a bill that would provide Roman Catholics with more control over their parish finances.

The Catholic League, which advocates for the church, wants Sen. Andrew McDonald and Rep. Michael Lawlor kicked out of the General Assembly, claiming both are "ethically unfit" to continue as lawmakers.

The leader of the Connecticut Republican Party on Monday accused the two Democrats of crossing the line between the separation of church and state. And a freshman Republican state senator, Michael McLachlan of Danbury, claimed on his blog that the legislation is "a thinly veiled attack" on the church for opposing gay marriage -- which both lawmakers support.

Lawlor and McDonald, co-chairmen of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, said they did not author the legislation. Rather, a group of disgruntled parishioners, upset about recent cases of priests embezzling large sums from parishes in Darien and Greenwich, asked for a bill that changes the state's Religious Corporations Act to make their church operations more transparent.

"A lot of misinformation has been spread about this proposal, and we ourselves are still learning exactly what its impact would be," Lawlor and McDonald said Monday in a joint statement. "We are keeping an open mind to what these parishioners have to say about their church, and we respectfully ask that others give the courtesy of listening to their proposed changes."

Catholics across the state learned about the bill during Mass on Sunday when priests read statements from the state's bishops. Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell and Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori have said the proposal "directly attacks the Roman Catholic Church and our faith" and urged followers to attend a public hearing on Wednesday at the state Legislative Office Building.

The proposal would change the governing structure of parishes to include seven to 13 lay members, giving them the power to control the finances. The archbishop or bishop of the diocese would serve as an ex-officio member but could not vote on issues.

McDonald has said that any parish wishing to could leave its affairs under diocesan control.

Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, said he doesn't believe the legislation is an attack on the faith. Rather, he described it as an attempt by everyday Catholics to bring "health and sanity" to the church's financial affairs, especially after news of embezzlements and priest sex abuse scandals.

In December 2007, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay of Darien priest was sentenced to 37 months in prison for stealing about $1.3 million from his parish to support a luxurious lifestyle.

Last year, the former pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Greenwich, the Rev. Michael Moynihan, was forced to resign from the church amid allegations of financial mismanagement, including claims he kept two bank accounts secret from the diocese. An audit showed $400,000 was missing.

"In the Catholic Church today, every single parish is organized in such a way that the people who give the money have absolutely no responsibility for how it is expended," Lakeland said. "It's really time that the system changed a bit."

Lay trustees ran the parishes in the late 18th and early 19th century, said Lakeland. They owned the church property and paid the pastor. But in the 1960s, the system was changed, essentially giving the bishops control of the finances, he added.

Yet Lakeland said he doubts the bill will become law. But he said it's good to have the conversation out in the open.

"I think this is a very important step," he said. "I think that the bishops should ask themselves how responsible they are for a situation that has led a state legislature to step in."


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