Chancellor comments on reconfiguration report

The Pilot spoke with James McDonough, chancellor of the archdiocese, Nov. 11 on the conclusions of the final report of the archdiocese’s Parish Reconfiguration Oversight Committee. The committee, which released its report this week, was formed in 2004 to independently verify the financial aspects of the parish reconfiguration process.

With this report, the Parish Reconfiguration Oversight Committee concludes its task to oversee the integrity of the financial aspects of the reconfiguration process. Can you evaluate the work of the committee?

Even before evaluating their work I would like to say how appreciative we are of the committee, which has invested so much time and expertise overseeing these matters that were very difficult and complex.

In terms of the quality of their work, I was very impressed. I think the committee in its findings stated that the archdiocese handled the sales of those properties in an adequate fashion, and we certainly agree with that. The committee found no evidence of misappropriation of funds, and we agree also with that. The committee states that no reconfiguration funds were used to cover clergy abuse settlements and also commended Cardinal Seán’s financial disclosure initiatives and his policy of openness. We appreciate the great work and the support for the practices that we’ve used as the result of reconfiguration.

The report is critical of previous administration in the archdiocese for trying to deny access and supportive of your efforts and the vicar general’s efforts to provide the requested information. Can you explain what led you to change course and become more transparent with the committee?

I can’t really speak to what happened before I got here. Throughout my interview process and when I was first hired, Cardinal Seán and I agreed that I would continue his spirit of openness, his policy of transparency. That’s what I would want and we were on the same page. It was very easy for me to operate in a very open manner relative to this group. We had two very capable people who were working with the committee on a regular basis, Jim Walsh and Denise Biernat. They were very helpful in the committee’s deliberations and work.

The committee addresses two main concerns in its report: One is the possible use of reconfiguration funds for ordinary archdiocesan expenses and the other is “flipping” of the property at the former St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in East Boston. Can you explain the use of those $12 million that were transferred as “support services for parishes” and injected into the central funds budget?

The charter of the committee envisioned that these funds would be used to support parishes. Throughout the [central funds] budget there are clear departments that work to serve parishes. I really don’t see any conflict with the charter in the use of those funds in prior years. That’s not the practice today and we don’t envision using that practice going forward, but I have no criticism of the way that was handled at that time because it is consistent with the charter.

Regarding the Our Lady Star of the Sea property, the committee supports the findings of Judge Herlihy who said that senior archdiocesan officials were responsible for failing to incorporate a deed restriction to prevent “flipping,” citing a significant breakdown in internal controls. In your time as chancellor, have those internal controls been strengthened? If so, how?

There were clearly a couple of mistakes made both in the process and, clearly, in the result. Those kinds of things happen in real estate. It is our job to develop policies and procedures to minimize the risk of that happening. We have learned from those mistakes and we have developed a policy and a procedure today as a result of that situation that will serve us well in the future.

One of the concerns that I have is that we do not overreact and make it so difficult to do business with the archdiocese as to discourage people from wanting to buy properties going forward. And in some cases we’ve done that too. We need to strike a good and healthy balance and we hope that will, over time, do so. We have issued our report on the St. Mary Star of the Sea sale to the Finance Council. I want to stress that there was no indication that anyone benefited personally from the St. Mary Star of the Sea sale situation, that no insiders benefited for that, other than the buyer.

[Editor’s note: Text of the report to the Finance Council is available at]

Can you summarize those new policies and procedures?

First, there are some procedural enhancements that require sign offs of various authorities so that folks can be held accountable, and second, the policies are spelled out on who we will sell to and which restrictions will be placed upon sales based upon various circumstances. So, if it’s a property that potentially will be resold, we will put some deed restrictions in place and affirmative covenants that will make it difficult for someone to profit from a quick resale of a worship site.

The committee concludes that, aside for the East Boston sale, “the Boston Archdiocese handled the sale of closed parish properties in an adequate manner.” Are you satisfied with that conclusion and confident that no more controversial cases will surface?

Real Estate, in general, is kind of tricky. There were many worship sites sold without any restrictions and, who knows if someone is going to come along and suddenly decide that they need to own church X and that they are willing to pay whatever it takes to get it. It is difficult to guarantee that there is not some situation out there that might result in a profit, but that’s why people bought it so they could make a fair profit.

Moving forward, how do you see your role and the role of the central administration in the healing process with those who may have lost confidence in the way the Church handled its finances?

One of our priorities is to rebuild the trust in the Church of those who both as the result of the abuse crisis and the reconfiguration process felt excluded. What Cardinal Seán is trying to do is, by virtue of providing full information, let people feel as though they are well informed and, when appropriate, part of the process. I think the reconfiguration committee is a perfect example of this philosophy of bringing folks in to be a part of the process and be fully informed.