Expensive, unconstitutional, unnecessary

News that the Massachusetts House of Representatives will vote on the S. 1074, “An Act Relative to Charities” is troublesome.

The bill would eliminate the current exemption enjoyed by religious organizations from reporting their financial records to the state attorney general. It would also, in effect, give the attorney general jurisdiction over their activities and would have authority to reverse internal church decisions.

The vote on the bill in the House was postponed last November after House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi met with members of several religious denominations. They presented DiMasi with a compelling case that the proposed legislation will put an undue burden on the thousands of religious organizations throughout Massachusetts and will breach the wall of separation between church and state.

The Archdiocese of Boston has estimated that the cost of complying with the proposed legislation would exceed $3 million per year. Still recovering from a financial downturn following the clergy abuse crisis, the archdiocese is expected to raise only around $12 million this year. This, in fact, is slightly better than recent years. This means that in a typical year 25 percent or more of donations to the archdiocese may need to be diverted to cover the costs of complying with S. 1074.

That proposition is scandalous.

Proponents of the bill are right when they say that the underlying problem is one of trust. But intrusion of the state in church affairs with a bill aimed at forcing financial disclosure at the expense of violating the First Amendment will not restore the lost trust. The healing process after the sexual abuse crisis and the reconfiguration process has to be addressed by the Catholics in our archdiocese without external interference from the state. Put simply, this bill will do nothing to promote healing.

Only a sustained self-commitment to openness and transparency and a renewed focus on the Church’s mission of announcing the Good News of the Gospel and helping those in need will help to heal the lingering wounds.

Archbishop O’Malley is working diligently to restore the confidence in the Church that was lost after the sexual abuse crisis. Since he arrived in Boston in 2003 he has taken significant steps toward spiritual renewal and financial transparency. Last fall he announced the release of financial reports this Spring that will contain “consolidated audited reports for fiscal years 2004 and 2005 with full disclosure and explanation of the archdiocese’s organizational structure, including Corporation Sole.” The reports will also include financial reports from all parishes in the archdiocese with an assessment of their condition in fiscal year 2005.

In the letter announcing the timetable for the disclosures, the archbishop said “This commitment was motivated out of respect for people of the archdiocese as donors and members of our Church and to demonstrate to the general public that the archdiocese is fulfilling its fiduciary responsibilities.”

And in an interview with The Pilot at the time of the announcement, the archbishop stressed that “There is a whole gamut of thought out there. On the one hand, people who feel that the Church has all kinds of money hidden away some place and people, on the other side, who think we are wasting money or using it for things secretly. That’s not the case. We would like to be able to dispel a lot of the myths that have been created about the Church’s finances.”

It will take time for those myths to disappear. But the state has no business in trying to fix them. Our founding fathers saw the danger of having the state involved in church affairs and they put in place barriers to guarantee the free exercise of religion. Those barriers should be respected.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a similar bill last November, and a vote is expected at the House Jan. 25. If the bill passes, a substantial part of the financial contributions donated to churches, mosques and synagogues will be used to satisfy the misguided efforts of a small group of politicians who wish to take retribution on the leadership of their religious denomination.

Many Catholics at the grass-root level are aware of the difficulties their parishes face in paying bills, insurance, salaries and maintenance. They are involved in fundraising efforts to ensure that the pastoral activities can continue. The ramifications of this bill will affect the Church at every level.

Joining with the Massachusetts Catholic Conference we encourage our readers to contact their state representative as soon as possible. Urge them to keep the state out of the business of running churches.