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Catholic Donations Rise, Despite Sex Scandal

By Alan Cooperman - Washington Post
Friday, November 7, 2003

Defying predictions, Roman Catholics in the United States increased their donations to the church last year during the height of the scandal over sexual abuse of minors by priests, according to data collected by researchers at Georgetown University.

The reported rise in Catholic giving is doubly remarkable because it took place during an economic downturn in which contributions to the nation's 400 largest charities fell for the first time in more than a decade.

Behind the overall increase, however, is a telling difference in the two main categories of donations to the church.

Catholics put an estimated $5.8 billion in Sunday collection baskets to support their local parishes in 2002, an increase of 4.9 percent, or twice the rate of inflation. Yet they cut their pledges to bishops' annual appeals for diocesan operations by 2.3 percent, to $635 million.

"The story that it tells is that people are mad at the bishops in general, demanding accountability from the church as a whole, but they're saying 'My priest is okay,' " said Mary L. Gautier, a senior research associate at Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

As the sex abuse scandal spread last year from Boston to dioceses across the country, some Catholic activists predicted that the church would face not only a wave of multimillion-dollar lawsuits but also a big drop in donations.

In a Gallup poll in March 2002, 30 percent of all Catholics said they were contributing less money to the church because of the scandal. By December, 40 percent said they were reducing their donations, and Catholic fundraisers were "worried into a frenzy," recalled Matthew R. Paratore, secretary general of the International Catholic Stewardship Council, an association of about 1,000 diocesan development directors.

There have been indications for months that the actual impact varied from place to place. The Archdiocese of Chicago, for example, announced in February that it had raised a record $220 million, $20 million more than its goal, in a three-year campaign to renovate scores of churches and schools.

But the nationwide picture had remained unclear until now. The Georgetown researchers, who have surveyed all 194 American dioceses on their finances annually since 2000, published their raw data for 2002 in August. It was analyzed by Joseph Claude Harris, an independent researcher in Seattle, in a report to be released Monday to coincide with a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.

Of the 176 Latin Rite dioceses in the United States, 164 reported the results of annual fundraising appeals by their bishops or cardinals. Harris added up the figures and found that pledges increased by $20 million, or 3.2 percent, in 2001, the year before the scandal.

Facing a faltering stock market and rising unemployment, diocesan fundraisers increased their goals slightly, by an average of 1.6 percent, for 2002. But they failed to achieve even that small increase. Instead, contributions to bishops' appeals tumbled by $14.7 million, Harris found.

Nearly half of the national drop took place in Boston, the epicenter of the scandal, where pledges to the annual Cardinal's Appeal nose-dived from $16 million in 2001 to $8.8 million in 2002.

Abby O'Connell, a parishioner at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Brookline, Mass., appears to be typical. "Many of my friends were upset with how the whole thing was handled, the moving priests around from town to town. We decided to give directly to Catholic charities," she said. "That way we can be more sure it is going to do good."

Leaving Boston aside, pledges declined by just 1.1 percent nationally, with the shrinkage evenly distributed across the country. The Midwest was the only region where pledges rose.

Based on diocesan reports, it appears that the number of givers did not decline. About 26 percent of Catholic households responded to their bishops' appeals for all three years, but the average gift fell by $5 in 2002, to $144 per household.

"The fact that some households gave a little less should not be surprising in a troubled economy. News about the abuse scandals likely only compounded an already negative economic picture," Harris concluded.

The contrast with rising donations to parishes, however, is stark.

Extrapolating from reports by two-thirds of the U.S. dioceses, Harris estimated that "offertory" collections -- the money taken in by the nation's 18,511 Latin Rite Roman Catholic congregations at Masses, primarily on Sundays -- rose by $189 million, or 3.5 percent, in 2001, and climbed even faster, by $273 million, despite the scandal and adverse economic climate in 2002.

The biggest exception was Boston, where donations to parishes fell 8 percent. Smaller declines were reported by nine dioceses spread across the country, while about 100 dioceses reported increases.

Harris said it is possible that the remaining dioceses, which did not provide information on parish collections, were ones where fundraising had gone badly, skewing the report's conclusions. But Georgetown's Gautier said she did not think that was the case, because the response rate in 2002 was about the same as in previous years.

In an introduction to Harris's report, the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, the best-selling novelist and University of Chicago sociologist, raises the question of how it is possible that many Catholics told pollsters they were cutting their donations and yet donations increased.

The answer, Greeley suggested, may lie in the fundraising rule of thumb that 20 percent of the people usually provide 80 percent of the money.

"It may well be that most who threaten to cut back on contributions are those who do not contribute very much to begin with," he wrote. "The 20 percent who do pay the bills are dogged and dedicated Catholic laity who resolutely refuse to abandon their faith or leave the church no matter what their leadership may do or say. They understand the distinction between their rich tradition and the men who preside over that tradition."

The same conclusion was reached by Charles E. Zech, an economist at Villanova University who has worked with the Gallup Organization on a series of polls focusing on "committed parishioners," those who attend Mass at least once a week and form the hard core of church donors. In the latest poll, to be released today, 86 percent said the sex abuse scandal has not affected their parish donations, but 11 percent are giving less to their bishops' appeals, and 27 percent have stopped donating to national church collections.

"What I've been finding is that at the parish level, there's been very little impact on giving either in dollar amounts or numbers of givers," Zech said. "The further we get toward the bishops, the more effect we see."

Funds in the Catholic Church generally flow from the bottom up, as parishes pass along part of their revenues to dioceses, which in turn send money to the Vatican. Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani, president of the Prefecture of Economic Affairs for the Holy See, told reporters in July that U.S. contributions to the Vatican rose in 2002, though he declined to give a specific figure.

While no one expects the Vatican to open its books anytime soon, a Washington-based consortium of 50 private Catholic foundations with a total of about $3 billion in assets has paid for Zech's polling to push for greater financial transparency in U.S. dioceses.

Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities said he believes that even if Catholics are not cutting their donations because of the sex abuse scandal, they are asking more questions about how their money is used.

Butler estimated that there are now close to 1,000 private Catholic foundations in the United States.

"People are forming community foundations and setting up trusts rather than just turning over their money to their dioceses," he said. "That is the wave of the future for Catholics -- they will control their donations. The dinosaur way the church raises money, the collection-basket business -- it's only a matter of time before that fades away."

Staff writer Jonathan Finer in Boston contributed to this report.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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