FAQ about the Bishop Accountability Petition

a. What Is The Petition?

b. Why Is This Petition Important?

c. How Can I Help?

a. What Is The Petition?

The owners of the Western Mass Catholics blog (Robert Kelly and Brody Hale) started a petition on Change.Org. 

You can sign the petition here.

The petition asks Massachusetts Secretary of State William Francis Galvin to reinstitute a requirement that the Corporation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts provide annual financial statements to state officials. 

It is critical to understand two things:

1. this petition is NOT directed at religious organizations in general; it is directed at the Corporation of the Springfield Diocese.

2. this corporation is NOT a religious entity. 

Corporate sole gives the diocese civil standing. Through corporate sole, diocesan officials buy and sell property, file lawsuits (see links below for five recent lawsuits), lobby the state legislature, and donate to political parties and special interest groups. Deed restrictions on real property are especially important in the Springfield Diocese because they are by far the most restrictive in the state.  If the requirement for “annual returns” were reintroduced, citizens would learn about:

-  source and list of diocesan money and assets.
-  what the money and assets are used for.
-  how much money is used for civil suits and political donations.

Financial transparency is a good thing; it will do a world of good for the Catholic church; but it will never come without change! 

An article about just this aspect of the US Catholic church was published on Aug. 18 by the British magazine The Economist. The gist of the 4,000 word special report "Earthly Concerns":

" . . . there has never been a more important time to listen to such calls [for transparency], and to invite in the help and scrutiny that the church’s finances seem so clearly to need."

 b. Why Is This Petition Important?

So-called Annual Reports of the diocese show operating budgets only (money-in, money-out), and officials cherry-pick which categories to include. There is no attempt at a complete balance sheet. Even within this weak system, the Annual Report is sometimes skipped for years with no explanation. For example, FY 2008 and FY2009 were not reported until March, 2010. These reports are not even certified by a CPA. For an organization that depends on freely given donations, these failings are serious. For an organization that regularly files lawsuits in non-religious matters, donates money to political candidates, and seeks to influence political issues, they are alarming.

Recently, church officials used shell organizations such as the National Organization For Marriage (NOM) to launder money. In 2008, for example, as part of an orchestrated push, Bishop McDonnell donated 1,000.00 of the money of the diocese to an anti-gay campaign spearheaded by NOM in Maine. This was not disclosed to anyone, at any level, until the sunshine laws of Maine required the identification of donors.

Massachusetts should follow Maine’s example: the Secretary of State should ensure that we have the disclosure laws we need to keep pace with developments in political donations. Donors to PAC’s and social advocacy groups are allowed to remain quietly anonymous, and yet money talks — sometimes very loudly. 

This secrecy, whether it is practiced for so-called religious or other reasons, undermines the democratic process. On the state level, for the last eight years all four Bishops of the state have lobbied hard against House Bill 469, which calls for reform of the child abuse laws (statues of limitations). And yet, almost none of this advocacy or cost has been disclosed.

Another example of the trend is that the Knights of Columbus, encouraged by church officials, donated 1.4 million dollars to NOM anti-gay efforts in California and made other large contributions to anti-gay forces in Iowa. Rhode Island and Minnesota have seen the same type of activity. This money was not initially donated by parishioners or KOC members for political or legislative purposes, but rather for charitable purposes, to help “the least of us” — those most in need. 

By participating in this end-around, the KOC and the diocesan bishops are flirting with money-laundering. Although the KOC is a private group, many Catholics are beginning to question why we should allow Bishops to funnel large amounts of money to effect social and political change. 

Another concern is Bishop McDonnell’s use of the civil courts to enforce a worldview at odds with our non-Catholic neighbors. Examples include: his lawsuit against the Mayor and City Council of Springfield (to fight the designation of a church as a protected historic building); his lawsuit against the officials of the City of Northampton (to thwart a bikepath which would have benefited all citizens); his lawsuit against seven insurance companies (to compel them to pay the entire bill for clergy sex abuse); his legal counter-attack to parishioners pushing for a large bequest from a local parishioner to a local parish in Northampton; and his lawsuit against the parishioners of Mater Dolorosa (for trespassing on his private property). 

None of these lawsuits, managed by Bishop McDonnell in his role as head of the corporation, relate to religious practice!

Northampton Bike Path Lawsuit (court papers)
article: Diocese Sues City Over Bike Path (Northamptonmedia)

The Our Lady of Hope Lawsuit (court papers)
article: Historical District Wins Federal Judge's Support

The Mater Dolorosa Lawsuit (court papers) 
article: Court Hearing Pits Mater Dolorosa Parishioners....

article: St. Mary’s of Northampton Lawsuit (Northampton Gazette)
article: Parishioners Go To Court (Springfield Republican)

The Lawsuit Against Diocesan Insurers
FAQ About The Insurance Trial

The conclusion must be that “corporate sole” is being used as a cover for corporate misbehavior. Corporate sole enables the Bishop to pursue civil agendas for civil reasons without accountability to Church OR State. There should be more disclosure about these lawsuits, including why they are initiated, what their resolutions are (including information about settlements), and how much they cost.

Unfortunately, since these are civil matters, church membership lacks the authority to challenge such behavior. Our state must step up to create and enforce better disclosure laws. Requiring basic financial disclosure from the Springfield Diocese will institute a much-needed accountability. Your signature on the petition will send an email directly to the in-box of Mr. Galvin, Secretary of State — where it can do the most good.

For more historical background, see: “Accounting To No One”: A Historical Introduction to Corporate Sole in Massachusetts.”

Summing up, certain aspects of corporate sole as practiced in the Springfield Diocese have led directly to a union of Church and State that is accountable to no one. Far from advancing religious liberty, the “hands-off” approach toward the Springfield Diocese has encouraged intolerance by church officials and led directly to tampering in political and social change for all citizens under the guise of religion.

c. How Can I Help?

Sign the petition! 

Send this message for greater accountability to someone who can help: Secretary of State Galvin. All he needs to do is re-institute a requirement that has lapsed. Again, this is not about policing any other denomination or about crossing any church/state lines, or instituting onerous audits, as some will claim. It is about a justified accountability! Publicize it on your own web site, or forward the link to others. Spread the word! 

Although Secretary of State Galvin will give most weight to the signatures of Massachusetts citizens, all are welcome to sign. It's critical to show widespread support for more disclosure by Catholic church officials about spending habits which affect the whole society.

Please note: this petition could be duplicated many times over. Many (if not most) of the Catholic dioceses in the United States are corporations. 

Thank you for your interest!