Debate Continues on Proposed Church Bill
Lori Calls Proposed Legislation an Attempt to Silence Roman Catholic Church

By Ken Dixon
Connecticut Post
March 9, 2009

HARTFORD -- Lingering bad feelings on multimillion-dollar losses at Roman Catholic parishes in southwestern Connecticut have set off a volatile debate in the General Assembly over the separation of church and state and the rights of parishioners to oversee church affairs.

Catholics, led by Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori, said Monday the Legislature is attempting to meddle in its operations, in apparent violation of the Constitution.

The explosive issue, which may bring hundreds of Catholics to the Capitol Wednesday for a public hearing, dates as far back as an 1866 state law allowing for the incorporation of religious communities, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research.

Opposition mounts

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Monday said they oppose the bill, which they expect will be rejected by the committee before its April 3 deadline.

Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Monday he does not support a proposed change to allow more parishioner participation on congregations' boards.

McDonald said he scheduled the bill for a public hearing at the request of southwestern Connecticut Catholics, including members of the Darien and Greenwich churches that sustained financial fraud and mismanagement.

But McDonald wonders why there are incorporation statutes in the first place that allowed Catholics, Lutherans and other so-called hierarchical churches

to organize with a minority of appointed lay members.

The New York-based Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights on Monday called for the "expulsion" of McDonald and another committee co-chairman, because they are "ethically unfit" to remain in office.

"They have evinced a bias so strong and so malicious, that it compromises their ability to serve the public good," Catholic League President Bill Donohue said in a statement.

Meanwhile Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on Monday said the fulminating arguments show the state's laws on church organization may not hold up under constitutional scrutiny.

"I think what this amendment has revealed is a much broader and bigger issue relating to the existing statutory framework, which clearly is fraught with grave constitutional issues," Blumenthal said. "There's a very strong argument that this entire section relating to governance and structure of religious institutions violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."

Lori defends controls

During a conference call with the Hearst Connecticut Newspapers Monday, Lori and other church officials said extraordinary financial controls -- and a whistleblower system for parishioners -- have been established in recent years after incidents at St. John Church in Darien and St. Michael the Archangel Church in Greenwich.

"It's unconstitutional, as the bill would directly interfere with how any church conducts its affairs, whether it's self-governance or matters of doctrine," Lori said. "It's based on a lie, on a lack of truthfulness on all the church is doing to provide sound financial control and providing the laity with timely information on the parish."

Lori said he believes it's the result of continuing animosity from McDonald and Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, the other Judiciary Committee co-chairman, over the issue of same-sex marriage.

"I can tell you this legislation would reorganize us in ways contrary to the teachings and the law of the church," Lori said. "It really is an excuse to get into the church and silence the church."

McDonald, who is gay, denied Lori's charge, noting the state Supreme Court has ruled on the issue and made it legal for homosexuals to wed.

In fact, McDonald said, he discussed the incorporation legislation last year with members of the Connecticut Catholic Conference after similar legislation was submitted by a Republican House member from Greenwich.

Between 1999 and 2006, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, who is serving a three-year prison term, stole up to $1.4 million from St. John Church to finance a luxury lifestyle including a Florida condominium he shared with his gay lover.

At St. Michael the Archangel Church in Greenwich, the Rev. Michael Moynihan quit more than two years ago in the midst of a financial scandal where $2.1 million in parish contributions was taken off the books in two accounts and at least $400,000 was diverted to the priest for his personal use, according to the diocese.

"There are 387 parishes in Connecticut and there might be a sour apple once in a while, but you don't get rid of all of them over the occasional sour apple," Lori said. "We have good financial controls."

Norm Walker, chief financial officer for the diocese, said when the financial problems surfaced about three years ago, a "significant" review was undertaken and the resulting oversight program has become a model for other dioceses. He said quarterly and annual reports are prepared for parishes and whistleblower procedures for concerned church members are available on the diocese Web site.

"We have the best reporting system for parishes in the U.S.," Walker said.

Whose idea was it?

Lori said the proposal did not originate from parishioners in Darien or Greenwich, but McDonald said he has gotten calls from church members, particularly in the St. John community, which is in his state Senate district. He said some parishioners are fearful of going public because of potential fallout from the diocese.

"This is a proposal that was submitted to us by victims of fraud and embezzlement and include some of the most devout Catholics in Fairfield County," McDonald said.

"I actually question whether we should have any of these statutes that give preferential treatment to any religious denomination, but when we look at the history of this, it appears that the Catholic church originally requested the specific protections in existing law," McDonald said. "Even if it's constitutional, I don't agree with the bill as written, but that doesn't mean somebody who's the victim of fraud shouldn't have a public hearing on an issue that has been advanced by the church in the past."

McDonald said Lori's remarks about the gay-marriage issue lingering deflects the issue of whether parish members should have more of a say in how their churches are operated.

"The parishioners who are most devout are the ones advancing it, and I suspect it would be difficult for him to criticize his main contributors with some of the highest positions in the Catholic church," McDonald said.

Fallout unlikely

Derek Slap, spokesman for the Senate Democratic majority, said McDonald is unlikely to face any fallout from lawmakers.

"Lively debate surrounding controversial issues is a cornerstone of our democracy," Slap said. "We always suggest that people who have strong opinions about a proposed bill -- either in favor or in opposition -- let their voices be heard. That said, we do encourage the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to focus on policy and refrain from personal attacks."

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Monday his caucus also opposes the legislation.

"The bill does not simply stop at ordering the Catholic church how to organize itself," he said. "It also includes a provision that allows any person who believes money donated to any religious corporation has been used for a purpose other than that for which it was donated, to report their belief to the attorney general, who must investigate the claim and take any action he deems necessary."


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