Monday, May 26, 2008

It's important that we the church take care of this

L.A. parishes help pay archdiocese's $720 million in abuse settlements

With gifts large and small, they're heeding Mahony's appeal for help in paying victims.
By Rebecca Trounson
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

May 25, 2008

Blessed with a nest egg of nearly $1.5 million, a Woodland Hills parish donated almost all of it, leaving just $1,000 in its savings account. An Encino church offered a $100,000 interest-free loan. And a Boyle Heights parish decided it could spare $500 after ruling out the idea of raising money with tamale sales.

With gifts large and small, parishes across the sprawling Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles are answering an appeal from Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to help the archdiocese dig out of the financial hole resulting from its multimillion-dollar legal settlements with victims of clergy sexual abuse.

"It's important that we the church take care of this," said Father Scott Santarosa of Dolores Mission Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, which gave the $500 from its limited unrestricted funds. "It's like a family trying to take care of itself. Every family has parts that break down or need help. That's part of the church too, and we can't turn our backs."

Some parishes have told the archdiocese they cannot contribute because they are too poor or in debt from construction projects or real estate purchases. Others have yet to decide, their pastors said in interviews. But whatever the circumstance, the choice is not easy, several said.

"Either way, it's controversial," said Msgr. David A. Sork, pastor of St. John Fisher Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, who said he is praying about the issue and consulting parish leaders but has not yet decided. "It's a tough one."

On the one hand, Sork said, his congregants are asking why they should pay for mistakes that occurred in other parishes, not theirs. "Or they say, 'Why do we have to pay for something that happened 30 years ago?' That's hard for many to understand," he said. "But not helping means the archdiocese's services to all parishes, including this one, will be hampered."

Mahony made his request in a series of meetings around the archdiocese between January and March. Speaking to clergy and lay leaders, Mahony offered details of his financial recovery plan for the archdiocese, which has been staggered by abuse settlements totaling $720 million, including last summer's record $660-million agreement, in hundreds of civil cases.

Mahony, 72, whose remarks at one session were recorded for distribution to the parishes, apologized for "mistakes and miscalculations" he said he had made in handling the abuse crisis. He asked for help, saying the settlement costs were more than expected. To pay its $292-million share of the bill, he said, the archdiocese had cut administrative staff, liquidated investments and begun to sell off about 50 properties, including its headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard.

The archdiocese's central office is also trying to trim its budget an additional 10% and has asked parishes to increase their annual assessments to the office by 2% for five years beginning July 1.

Mahony said he had decided against trying to raise funds directly from the L.A. area's estimated 5 million Roman Catholics, saying he feared such a move might create ill will among parishioners and lead to resentment of the abuse victims. But he asked any parish that could afford it to assist with gifts or loans, mostly to pay down $175 million borrowed from an Irish bank to cover part of the settlements.

"I need to say to you very openly: I need your help," Mahony said, his face and voice somber. Without such assistance, he said, retiring the debt could take up to 15 years and force even deeper cuts in administrative and support services the central office provides the archdiocese's 288 parishes.

The cardinal also wrote letters seeking help from about 100 parishes that had undesignated funds of $100,000 to $1 million in the archdiocese's centrally managed investment pool, spokesman Tod Tamberg said.

One such parish was St. Bernardine of Siena Church in Woodland Hills, which had significant savings, much of it from a $1-million bequest from a parishioner who died several years ago. After Mahony's appeal, the church's pastor, Father Robert McNamara, held two long meetings with his finance council, staff and lay leaders.

In the end, McNamara decided to give nearly all of his parish's savings, almost $1.5 million. He declined recent requests for comment but explained the decision in several letters to parishioners.

"I prayed a lot, had some sleepless nights too . . ," McNamara wrote April 27. "I kept asking what kind of parish is St. Bernardine's."

McNamara reminded parishioners that both the church and its school still had substantial endowments and that the parish also had an emergency maintenance fund of about $540,000. And he said he had been inspired by his parishioners' generosity in raising nearly $170,000 in recent years for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asian tsunami and famine in Africa.

"You have given like a people who wanted to make a difference, and a difference you did make," he wrote. "That continued generosity inspired my decision then to help by giving all our savings minus $1,000." That amount was held back to keep the savings account open.

McNamara acknowledged that the decision had come after meetings that included "some heated exchanges. There was some venting -- anger, disappointment, frustration, concern for victims, etc., all coming from the shame we felt as Catholics and our empathy for the victims," he wrote. But he said most of the responses since then had been supportive.

At least one longtime member of St. Bernardine said she remains upset about the priest's decision, saying all parishioners should have been consulted. The woman spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she feared she would be criticized for speaking out against the gift.

"When the basket came around, we were told that if we kept giving to the church, the money would not go to pay for anything related to the abuse," she said. "Now all that money is gone, and it's gone exactly where it wasn't supposed to go."

But Eileen Fewless, the church's director of religious education who attended one of the discussions, strongly supported the gift. "Everyone in that meeting had a thoughtful, prayerful attitude, and I think most were really in favor of giving," she said. "That's the kind of parish we are."

Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said Mahony's request to parishes was unusual but not unprecedented, with dioceses in San Diego and Tucson among those that also have asked parishes to help pay abuse settlements.

"The ultimate source of money for any archdiocese or diocese is the parishioners," he said. "They're going to pay for this one way or the other."

But Zech also said he considered such appeals to parishes to be fair, as long as any contributions were voluntary.

Some parishes, even in relatively wealthy areas, said they could not afford to contribute because they are paying off loans for building projects.

And others, including Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, simply cannot. "We have no discretionary funds," said Msgr. John Moretta. "We are in a parish that is in a survival mode itself, but others are very graciously stepping up to the plate."

At St. Anne Church in Santa Monica, Father Michael D. Gutierrez said the meeting in his Westside deanery with Mahony, priests and lay leaders was tense at times. "There were some really hard questions, but I thought the cardinal did a good job explaining why he needed this," he said.

The priest said his own parish, a relatively poor congregation that has struggled in recent years to keep its small school open, nonetheless wanted to contribute. He said it will give $25,000 -- $5,000 a year for each of the next five years. Gutierrez also is among local priests who have donated a month's salary to help pay down the debt.

"I think we've all learned from these mistakes and we've moved forward," he said. "We do good work now and we need to help the church move on."

At St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a congregation of about 1,400 families in Encino, Msgr. Carl Bell said he and his finance council had decided to lend the archdiocese $100,000 interest-free and would be paid back over the next decade. And at St. Denis Church in Diamond Bar, Msgr. James Loughnane said he had consulted parish leaders. Although no decision had been made, he expected they would contribute.

"They understand that at this point, blaming anyone isn't the answer," Loughnane said. "We need to rally around the situation and take care of it."


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