|Proposed Bill to Change Roman Catholic Church Finances Offends Parishioners
By Nanci G. Hutson
March 10, 2009
Gerald Ronan of Bridgewater will not be able to go to the state legislature Wednesday.
But he is lending his voice to the chorus of Catholics outraged about a proposed bill related to church finances that church leaders say is retribution for church stands on gay marriage and abortion.
Diocesan leaders contend the proposed bill, which would restructure the church's financial hierarchy, is a First Amendment violation.
After first learning about the proposal Friday, and hearing more at Mass on Sunday, Ronan, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Church in New Milford, said his reaction was the same as church leaders'.
"This is discriminating against Catholics and is unconstitutional," said Ronan, who has sent e-mail messages to fellow parishioners and area legislators to defeat the measure.
On Wednesday, churches throughout the diocese will send buses and caravans to Hartford so parishioners, priests and other diocesan leaders can object at the Judiciary Committee's noon public hearing on the bill submitted by state Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, and Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven.
Bridgeport Diocese spokesman Joseph McAleer said more than 2,000 Catholics from Fairfield County are expected to attend.
Sacred Heart Church parishioner Gene Bates of Danbury calls the bill "ill-founded" and "foolhardy."
If he can get away from work, Bates said, he will go to the public hearing Wednesday.
Even though he cannot excuse a priest for stealing money, Bates said this bill is not the way to address that.
Bates said the bill came "out of the blue."
"There is a lot more wrong (in the state) that people should be spending their energy on," Bates said. "There is not a chance that this will do anything but waste people's time."
Calls to several area Roman Catholic clergy Monday were not returned.
A secretary for Monsignor Robert Weiss at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown said the priest was not available and referred calls to the diocese.
The bill as proposed would put financial decision-making in the hands of parish members, with the diocese bishop and parish priests serving as nonvoting members.
Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori called the bill a "thinly veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage."
Legislator McDonald's assertion that without this change church members at the parish level have no financial control is "completely untrue," McAleer said.
He said the diocese promotes full disclosure and accountability about its finances, with mechanisms for those who have questions about how parish finances are managed.
"If you suspect something in the parish, there is a hotline to call," McAleer said.
In addition, he said, every parish has a financial council and there is an up-to-date manual on financial policies and procedures. Financial reports from the diocese are available to all parishioners.
The Bridgeport Diocese's financial monitoring process has been so successful it has been copied by dioceses across the country, McAleer said.
"Bishop Lori and his finance team have really been leading lights in the issue of financial controls, accountability and transparency at the diocesan and parish level," he said.
Ronan said the authors of the bill have said it is in response to priests who misappropriated parish funds for their own use, but he thinks that response is extreme overkill.
"I see it eliminating the parish priest and bishop from the operation of church legal and financial matters. This would make parishioners totally in charge, with the priests and bishops on the sidelines. And that's silly."
McDonald and Lawlor have said their intent is to create more transparency for parishioners about how their money is spent and to allow for the investigation of misappropriation of funds.
Danbury state Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-24th District, called the proposed bill Monday an unconstitutional, "thinly veiled proposal to play politics" over the church's stand on same-sex marriage.
As offended as Catholics are by the bill, McLachlan said he is getting almost as many calls from non-Catholics about the ramifications this could have for other faith institutions.
In 1866, the state recognized the church's right to organize as it deems fit, and to "radically change" that structure now is "inappropriate," McLachlan said.
On his state blog, McLachlan called the proposed legislation a "bizarre attack on the Roman Catholic Church" by attempting to recreate a "congregational church structure."
State Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, announced Monday that the Senate Republican Caucus unanimously opposes the bill, calling it "an unconstitutional assault on religious freedoms."
"Proponents of the bill cite the embezzlement of funds by a pastor in Darien as the rationale for this unwarranted governmental intrusion into the affairs of the church. But the priest in this case has already been arrested and imprisoned for his offenses," McKinney said in a statement.
"Criminal laws currently in place have done as they were designed to do -- punish those who willingly misappropriate funds."
Contact Nanci Hutson at firstname.lastname@example.org at (860) 354-2274.
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