|Debate Rages on Church Bill
Money Losses at Local Parishes Prompted Legislation
By Ken Dixon and Brian Lockhart
March 10, 2009
HARTFORD — Lingering bad feelings over multimillion-dollar losses at Roman Catholic parishes in southwestern Connecticut have set off a volatile debate in the General Assembly over the rights of parishioners to oversee church affairs.
Catholics led by Bridgeport Diocese Bishop William Lori said Monday the legislature was attempting to meddle in its operations, calling it a violation of the Constitution.
The bill, introduced Thursday by the Judiciary Committee, would allow elected laypersons to handle parish finances and leave priests and bishops to oversee "matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices."
State Sen. Andrew McDonald,
D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he scheduled the bill for a public hearing Wednesday because he was asked to do so by southwestern Connecticut Catholics, including members of Darien and Greenwich churches where large sums of money have disappeared. The hearing could draw hundreds of Catholics to Hartford.
McDonald and the other committee chairman, state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, issued a statement Monday saying the proposal only would revise existing corporate law. The issue dates to an 1866 state law allowing for the incorporation of religious communities, according to the Office of Legislative Research.
"It has been incorrectly characterized that this legislation originated from the two of us as an attack on the church and freedom of religion,"
the statement from McDonald and Lawlor said. "That is not the truth, and the facts do not support such a claim. A lot of misinformation has been spread about this proposal, and we ourselves are still learning exactly what its impact would be.
"We are keeping an open mind to what these parishioners have to say about their church, and we respectfully ask that others give them the courtesy of listening to their proposed changes in the existing state law governing Roman Catholic corporations. We ourselves are questioning certain aspects of their proposal and even the constitutionality of the current law. Despite what has been portrayed, we have not endorsed nor are advocating for this proposal."
McDonald said he wondered why incorporation statutes ever allowed Catholics, Lutherans and other churches to organize with a minority of lay members.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the fulminating arguments show that the state's laws on church organization may not hold up under close 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."
Catholic organizations continued to attack Monday.
The Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights in New York called for the "expulsion" of McDonald and Lawlor 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," league President Bill Donohue said in a statement.
The controversy Monday took on a partisan tone.
"Democrats have crossed the line between church and state," GOP Chairman Christopher Healy said.
But last year, former state Rep. Claudia "Dolly" Powers, a Republican from Greenwich, pursued similar legislation. Powers said she submitted a proposal on behalf of constituent Tom Gallagher, a driving force behind the bill now pending before the Judiciary Committee.
"If a constituent has an issue and they bring it to any legislator, that's part of your job," Powers said.
She said she filled out a request form for the proposal to be raised in committee during the 2008 session. But it never went anywhere.
"It just died," Powers said.
McDonald said Gallagher first shopped the legislation in 2007, but it was too late in the session for the Judiciary Committee to act. In 2008, "we were swamped" with a debate over a law to increase penalties on violent offenders, McDonald said. He said he discussed the proposal last year with members of the Connecticut Catholic Conference after Powers submitted the legislation.
Powers, who did not seek re-election, said she felt badly that McDonald is taking so much criticism. But she declined to give her opinion on the proposal.
"I'm not going to go there," Powers said.
Lori and other church officials said Monday that financial controls have been established in recent years after incidents at St. John Church in Darien and St. Michael the Archangel Church in Greenwich.
At St. John, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, who is serving a three-year prison term, stole $1.4 million from 1999 to 2006 to finance a luxury lifestyle, including a Florida condo that he shared with his gay lover.
Two years ago at St. Michael, the Rev. Michael Moynihan quit as pastor in a financial scandal. About $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.
"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."
The church has good financial controls, said Lori and Norm Walker, chief financial officer for the diocese. After the money went missing in Darien, a "significant" review was undertaken, resulting in an oversight program that has become a model for other dioceses, Walker said. Quarterly and annual reports now are prepared for parishes, and parishioners can use the diocese Web site to report concerns, he said.
"We have the best reporting system for parishes in the U.S.," Walker said.
Lori said the proposal could be the result of animosity from McDonald and Lawlor about the fight over same-sex marriage laws. McDonald and Lawlor are gay.
McDonald said the state Supreme Court already ruled that same-sex marriage is legal.
"That fight's over," McDonald said.
Lori's remarks about gay marriage are intended to deflect from the issue of whether parishioners should have more of a say in how their churches operate, McDonald said.
"The parishioners who are most devout are the ones advancing it, and I suspect it would be difficult for (Lori) to criticize his main contributors with some of the highest positions in the Catholic church," McDonald said.
As criticism intensified Monday, McDonald's office circulated names of Catholics who support the concept of the bill. Dan Sullivan of New Canaan, a member of Voice of the Faithful, said he learned about the bill Saturday, when Lori issued a statement on his Web site.
"I was sort of generally aware that Tom Gallagher was having some conversations, and frankly was pessimistic he would find a sponsor," Sullivan said.
The bishops have overreacted, he said.
"They are treating this as if it were the end of the Catholic church," Sullivan said. "When I went to Mass Sunday, I walked in and there was a pile of statements on a little table right by the door. The characterization of it in the bishop's press release I think is just incorrect. And for them to allege this is somehow an attempt to silence the church on the issues of the day . . . there's no support for that whatever."
John Santa of Fairfield, vice chairman of Santa Energy and a frequent donor to the church, said the bill should be considered. He said he was surprised by the strong reaction.
"We are, to the best of my knowledge, the only major, major religion in the world where the clergy handles money. I think that ought to be looked at," Santa said. "We ought to have a rational conversation about this."
Paul Lakeland, a professor of Catholic studies at Fairfield University, said "on the surface it seems to bishops like a frontal attack on First Amendment rights."
But when you look deeper, "it's a reflection of a grassroots movement in the church that says the people who give the money should have some say over how it's spent," Lakeland said. "Is how your parish's finances are organized really the free exercise of religion? I don't think so."
But Phillip Dolcetti, who served on the parish council at St. John in Darien, said he opposed the legislation.
"They're just picking on the Catholic religion because of what happened. I don't agree that should be done, period," Dolcetti said.
He questioned why lawmakers think a body of laypeople would do better overseeing finances.
"What if you get a lay body that's corrupt? Who knows?" Dolcetti said. "The church, basically, now they're doing the right types of things. I don't think the legislature has any business getting involved in the Catholic church or any church."
Michael Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said he learned of the proposal in early 2008 during a meeting with McDonald and Lawlor.
"We talked about a host of issues the conference was involved in, from immigration to health care to housing to the earned-income tax credit," Culhane said. "At the end, I asked both of them if there was anything controversial that may surface it'd be nice if I knew about it. That's when Senator McDonald said we may be visiting the corporate statutes that relate to religious organizations."
Rumors swirled about a proposal for the rest of the year but nothing surfaced, Culhane said.
McDonald told conference members Wednesday, the day before the Judiciary Committee raised the bill, that the legislature would debate it, Culhane said.
"It just emerged," he said. "I was shocked to read the title. . . . I pulled the statute and said this targets the Catholic church."
— Ken Dixon writes for the Connecticut Post. Staff Writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 750-5352.
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