Catholic Finance Bill Dies; GOP to Hold Hearing; Church Still Plans Rally

By Susan Shultz
Darien Times
March 10, 2009 article&id=22166:catholic-finance-bill-dies-gop-to-hold-hearing-church- still-plans-rally&catid=1:darien-local-news&Itemid=1323

After outrage from area Catholics against a proposed state law that would strip bishops and parish pastors of their financial authority, the state Senate bill was withdrawn from consideration Tuesday.

But despite that, state Senate and House Republicans are going forward with a hearing on the bill, which would have made it possible for parishioners to govern their parishes administratively and financially without submitting to the authority of the pastor or bishop. The bill specified, however, that the authority of the bishop or pastor in matters of related to religious tenets or practices remains intact.

Bishop William E. Lori, head of the Bridgeport diocese, spoke out this week against the bill, which was originally thought to be brought forward by Sen. Andrew McDonald, Democrat of Stamford who represents part of Darien, and state Rep. Mike Lawlor of East Haven. The two men are co-chairmen of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee.

The Senate Republican Caucus unanimously opposes the bill but plans to still hear from the public.

"In an effort to give the people who have contacted us an opportunity to express their concerns with this bill, many of which we share, the members of the House and Senate Republican Offices will be going forward tomorrow with an informational hearing on this bill starting at noon," state Rep. John Frey of Ridgefield said in an e-mail sent Tuesday afternoon. The hearing will be held in room 2C of the Legislative Office Building in Hartford and overflow rooms will be available.

Sign-up for the hearing will begin at 9:30, Frey said. "We will hear from Church officials first and then open it up for public comment. We are inviting anyone who has contacted us on this bill so we can let them know they can be heard on this issue tomorrow. We will also be inviting our Democrat colleagues to join us."

Area Catholics were planning to rally outside the Capital Building on Wednesday. As of Tuesday afternoon, the rally was still scheduled.

In a joint statement issued Tuesday that announced the withdrawal of the bill, McDonald and Lawlor wrote:, McDonald and Lawlor wrote: "For reasons that are unclear, Connecticut has had generations-old laws on the books singling out particular religions and treating them differently from other religions in our statutes. That doesn't seem right. In fact, many of our existing corporate laws dealing with particular religious groups appear to us to be unconstitutional under the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If that is correct, any changes to that law would likely also be unconstitutional."

For that reason, the two co-chairmen said, "It would serve no useful purpose to have a conversation about changing the laws that govern existing Roman Catholic corporations until we know if any of these existing laws are constitutional. At the request of the proponents who are advocating this legislation, we have decided to cancel the public hearing for tomorrow, table any further consideration of this bill for the duration of this session, and ask the attorney general his opinion regarding the constitutionality of the existing law that sets different rules for five named separate religions.

Despite McDonald and Lawlor's decision to not hold a hearing the Republicans are going forward with it.

The bill

McDonald, one of two Darien state senators, corrected in an interview with The Darien Times, as well as in a press release he issued with Rep. Lawlor on Monday, that he did not write the bill.

"A number of parishioners from lower Fairfield County asked the judiciary committee to consider this proposal, including Greenwich attorney Tom Gallagher and Fairfield University professor Paul Lakeland, who has been writing on this subject for several years now," McDonald said.

The parishioners, according to the senator, included some from St. John R.C. Parish in Darien, where its former pastor, Michael Jude Fay, plead guilty to stealing more than $1 million from the parish. Both the bishop and current church pastor told The Times that St. John parishioners were are not behind the bill.

The same year Fay was caught, 2006, a financial review uncovered that Michael Moynihan, pastor of St. Michael's in Greenwich, had stole $400,000 from his church.

In an official statement regarding the proposed bill, the diocese said "the bill, moreover, is a thinly-veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage."

The diocese also referred to the bill as "irrational, unlawful and bigoted."

In response to e-mailed questions, Bishop Lori said that although this current legislation is aimed at the Roman Catholic Church, other denominations should fear the same.

"Every denomination should fear the wide-ranging implications of this proposed bill. While it is directed unfairly at the Roman Catholic Church, all churches could face a loss of religious liberty which is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution," he wrote.

"It is blatantly unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment. The guarantee of religious freedom in the U.S. Constitution applies not only to the private beliefs of individuals but also protects the autonomy of organized churches all churches," Bishop Lori wrote.

Monsignor Frank McGrath, pastor of St. John's, said the only reaction to the bill from his parish has been "outrage."

"The parish is living a very healthy model and people have a lot of input and say — the finances are very transparent," he said.

"The people are quite surprised and bothered by this bill," he said, adding that he has not heard from one person who isn't opposed to it at the parish, which he said has moved far past the Fay scandal of nearly three years ago.

The bill, officially Raised Bill No. 1098, encouraged more layperson involvement, which Monsignor McGrath says is already the case at St. John's.

"There is remarkable lay involvement working unity to have a mind of Christ. That's the issue, it isn't my ideas vs. your ideas, it is actually to have the mind of Christ together. That is what makes the Catholic Church and Christianity united under Christ's will," he said.

Senator McDonald said that currently there are state laws on the books that provide special treatment for a few religious organizations dating back to the 19th Century. He said that if this law is unconstitutional based on the separation of church and state, so are they.

"I think a lot of people, including myself, are shocked to learn the state of Connecticut has long-standing statutes that give unique and special statement to some denominations," he said.

"I don't think it is great public policy to single out particular religions in our state law, and I think there are some profoundly difficult constitutional questions about that. The churches have benefited from them for decades," McDonald said.

McDonald said that the parishioners who suggested the bill are "victims of embezzlement" who are seeking to have " a greater say in the administrative and financial functions of the church."

He also said that this bill is one of hundreds that get raised in the Judiciary Committee and that he wanted to help his constituents who were victims of fraud and embezzlement.

"We wanted to at least initiate the legislative process," the senator said.

In a joint press release yesterday with Rep. Lawlor, McDonald said the bill had been "incorrectly characterized" as "originated from the two of us as an attack on the church and freedom of religion. That is not the truth and the facts do not support such a claim." The press release stated the bill had been proposed and written by a group of faithful Catholic parishioners from Fairfield County.

"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," the two legislators said in the press release.

Dan Sullivan, co-chairman of the Voice of the Faithful, an organization that seeks more involvement from laity in the administrative affairs of the Catholic Church, said the group feels the bill has a "lot of problems."

"As an organization, we believe it is not appropriate to exclude the bishop and pastor from the parish corporation. The goal of the Voice of the Faithful is to provide for increased lay participation in the governance of the Catholic Church. The law, I think in its inception, was to provide for some of that," he said

Sullivan said in an interview that he would like to see increased dialogue between the hierarchy of the church and the laity, and said that although Bishop Lori has made progress in the financial affairs of the diocese, the fact remains that the sole authority for parish administration and finances is the pastor — and he reports to the bishop.

"Parish councils and financial councils are relegated to purely advisory roles," he said

Sullivan said that in the history of the church, 100 years ago, that might have been appropriate when most laity had less education, but now, when so many lay members of the church have advanced education it no longer makes sense.

"People are highly educated and highly committed to the Catholic Church," he said.

Sullivan said it is disappointing that rather than open up a dialogue as a result of the proposed bill, the diocese has chosen to "crush it at its inception."

Sullivan's group would like to see a cooperative effort in the administrative and financial side of the parish operations. Sullivan said the theological side should remain solely under the pastor's and bishop's authority.

"That is how the affairs are run in other churches," he said.

Bishop Lori said that the bill has been proposed by "disgruntled individuals" who are promoting their own agenda.

"It is irresponsible of the Judiciary Committee to give this bill the time of day, while not first asking the diocese a single question about how religious corporations are run and how strong financial controls and accountability are maintained in every single one of our 87 parishes, with the help and support of our clergy and laity," he wrote.

He also said that the diocese has resolved any previous financial issues.

"The Bridgeport Diocesan Parish Finance Program is being used as a model by major (arch)dioceses throughout the U.S. The diocese publishes its independently audited financial statements and related commentary online and in its newspaper, mailed free to parishioners," he said.

The diocese would have been prepared to fight this bill up to the federal level, the bishop said.

Despite the bill's postponement, the Republicans will still hold a hearing. And a demonstration outside the State Capital Building by area Catholics was is planned for 10:30, Wednesday morning, March 11. The Diocese of Bridgeport is setting up free bus service around 8:30 that morning to Hartford at area parishes.

"We think it would be more appropriate to invite representatives from all religious denominations around the state together with legal scholars on this topic to participate in a forum regarding the current law," McDonald and Lawlor saidIn their Tuesday statement postponing the legislation. "Such a conversation would be more appropriate to have when the legislature is not in session and other more important issues, such as the current fiscal crisis, are resolved. We intend to do that once we have the benefit of the attorney general's opinion.

"In the meantime, we think it would be most beneficial if the proponents who requested these changes and church officials meet together privately to see if they can come to a resolution on their own. Open and honest communication between these two groups could only help. For our part, we intend to reach out to representatives of the Catholic Conference and continue the discussion that began in 2008 on this issue. We hope they will agree to meet with us."



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