Church Oversight Bill Yanked

By Andrew Perlot
March 10, 2009

Fierce opposition from Catholics and the qualms of the legislature's Judiciary Committee have sunk a proposal to regulate the Roman Catholic Church in Connecticut.

State Sen. Andrew J. McDonald and state Rep. Mike Lawlor, co-chairmen of the committee, canceled the highly anticipated public hearing on Senate Bill 1098 scheduled for today, which would have placed administrative and financial control of parishes in the hands of lay Catholic boards of commissioners.

The bill is withdrawn from consideration this legislative session, they said Tuesday in a release, citing the need to clarify the constitutionality of existing laws that govern religious groups before considering new legislation. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has been asked to examine the statutes and report back to the co-chairmen, who have said they are not against the church.

Whatever the motive for the cancellation, the bill was never a good idea, said Nick Casertano, who was picking his daughter up from St. Joseph School in Meriden Tuesday afternoon.

"Geez, the government can't even run itself," he said. "Now they're going to step into the church, too?"

Had the hearing not been canceled, Casertano likely would have tried to join some sort of rally in protest, he said.

Several Republican lawmakers said they were outraged by the cancellation and will hold their own hearing today so that the hundreds of Catholics expected to descend on the Capitol can have their voices heard.

The informational hearing will be held at noon in Room 2C of the Legislative Office Building. People can sign up for the hearing beginning at 9:30 a.m. in the lobby.

A rally is also scheduled on the Capitol steps from noon to 1 p.m.

But others say the bill had good intentions.

It was put forth at the request of members of a Darien church, whose priest was convicted of stealing more than $1 million from the parish.

The controversial proposal was denounced from the pulpit by priests across Connecticut on Sunday. It would amend a little-known 1866 state law that sets up rules for religious corporations and societies.

Under the bill, each church's board would include seven to 13 lay members, giving them the power to control parish finances. The archbishop or bishop of the diocese would serve as an ex-officio member but could not vote on issues.

In the United States the Catholic Church has also been forced to dole out $2 billion in settlements to victims of sexual abuse by priests. Six dioceses around the country have been forced into bankruptcy because of those costs.

Sipping coffee at Café Dolce on West Main Street in Meriden Tuesday, Paul Braccoforte, who described himself as a Catholic who infrequently attends Mass at the Church of the Resurrection in Wallingford, said public oversight is a good thing.

"I agree with the legislation as a Catholic," he said. "The church seems to have a hands-off approach to anything that goes on in America, but we all throw money their way."

A board of directors to oversee that money would be a step in the right direction, he said.

But Catholic leaders and lay organizations throughout the state and region criticized the proposal this week, alleging that the state was singling out the religion and violating the First Amendment.

But Braccoforte wondered how many of these people were ordinary parishioners and how many were the Church's bureaucracy resisting improvement.

As he took a break from his job at Pies On Pizzeria on Colony Street in Meriden Tuesday, Giuseppe Difiore said he didn't have any firm feeling on regulation one way or the other.

"The Catholic Church is doing pretty good," he said. "But maybe they can step it up."

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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