The Washington Post

Could the IRS help cure the church?

A Catholic bishop in West Vir­ginia con­trolled a huge slush fund — with no out­side scru­tiny.

- Crime · Religion · Christianity · U.S. Internal Revenue Service · Vatican · United States of America · West Virginia · Virginia · Baltimore · New York County, NY · Boston · Washington

THE BREADTH and depth of cor­rup­tion in the Catholic Church seem bound­less, and col­ored by the on­go­ing dysfunctio­n aris­ing from clergy sex abuse and the hi­er­ar­chy’s in­abil­ity to grap­ple with it. Some of the mis­deeds and coverups have been fa­cil­i­tated by a law that ex­empts re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions and af­fil­i­ated char­i­ta­ble en­ti­ties from fi­nan­cial re­port­ing that is re­quired of other non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions. Even as the Vat­i­can, seek­ing to move be­yond its pro­tracted sea­son of scan­dal, calls for a new era of trans­parency, the church’s fi­nances in the United States re­main opaque.

That ap­par­ent dis­crep­ancy be­tween rhetoric and re­al­ity was high­lighted by a stun­ning ac­count in The Post fo­cus­ing on the op­u­lent life­style, and ex­trav­a­gant palm-greas­ing, un­der­taken for years by the nowdis­graced former bishop of West Vir­ginia, Michael J. Brans­field. The story re­vealed that Arch­bishop Wil­liam Lori of Bal­ti­more, who over­saw an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into sex­ual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions against Mr. Brans­field,

white­washed the re­sult­ing re­port to ex­punge the fact that he — along with 10 other of the most prom­i­nent and in­flu­en­tial cler­ics in the United States and the Vat­i­can — were paid thou­sands of dol­lars from what amounted to a slush fund con­trolled by the bishop.

You read that cor­rectly: The arch­bishop, hav­ing re­ceived sub­stan­tial mon­e­tary “gifts” from the bishop, had that fact scrubbed from the re­port that he him­self su­per­vised. And he scrubbed more fa­mous names, in­clud­ing those of cur­rent and former cardinals in New York, Bos­ton, Wash­ing­ton and the Vat­i­can, who were show­ered with cash from the same source.

The fact that the slush fund, which dis­pensed $350,000, was con­trolled by the free-spend­ing, large­liv­ing bishop of West Vir­ginia, one of the poor­est states in the na­tion, is a self-ev­i­dent irony. That the funds were lav­ished not just on cardinals but also on some of the young priests whom Mr. Brans­field is ac­cused of abus­ing and mo­lest­ing speaks to the con­spir­acy of si­lence at the heart of the church’s sex abuse scan­dal.

Mr. Brans­field has de­nied the al­le­ga­tions with­out ad­dress­ing them. Mr. Lori ex­plained that he scratched his name from the re­port, and those of other se­nior cler­ics, be­cause there is “no ev­i­dence” of rec­i­proc­ity for the “gifts” they re­ceived from Mr. Brans­field. Maybe not; but Mr. Brans­field’s al­leged sex­ual ha­rass­ment ap­pears to have gone on for decades, with­out any se­nior fig­ure in the church tak­ing ac­tion to stop it.

Other non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions are re­quired to file tax forms de­tail­ing their fi­nances, called Form 990s, which are avail­able to the pub­lic; the dis­clo­sure pro­vides one check on abuse. Re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions are not re­quired to file 990s. Pay­offs that func­tioned as hush money to vic­tims have been a fea­ture of the Catholic Church’s abuse scan­dal, and those pay­ments, like the “gifts” that Mr. Brans­field dis­trib­uted so freely, have been en­abled by the lack of trans­par­ent fi­nan­cial re­port­ing re­quire­ments. If the Vat­i­can can­not achieve real trans­parency by de­cree, Congress can and should con­sider do­ing so by leg­is­la­tion.

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