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Senior Priest Policy under revision

By Antonio M. Enrique
Posted: 6/10/2005

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The Archdiocese of Boston is drafting a new policy that will significantly change the way it will fund the financial needs of the retired diocesan priests. It is expected that the final version of the new Senior Priest Policy for the Archdiocese of Boston will take effect Jan. 1, 2006 after extensive consultation with the Boston clergy.

The change in the policy, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley said in a letter sent in late April to all diocesan priests, addresses three major concerns: The financial stability of the clergy funds, the equal distribution of clergy funds among senior priests, and the improved fraternity among clergy on all levels.

In a pastoral letter issued last November, the archbishop said that the financial situation of the archdiocese was “much worse than most people realize.” He cited the sharp reduction of annual income to the diocese caused by the scandal and the fact that “troubles in the stock market … have left us with an unfunded pension liability of $80 million.”

Chancellor David Smith has estimated that $55 million of that liability is attributable to the Clergy Retirement and Disability Fund.

Speaking to The Pilot June 7, Smith explained that the downturn in the stock market led to decreased returns from the pension fund’s investments and lower expectations for future earnings.

"While we had better market performance than almost everybody else, we did not make the intended grade of return," he said.

Other factors such as the high average age of priests and increased life expectancy have also adversely affected the projected liability of the pension trust, he said.

Father Robert Connors, secretary for ministerial personnel and Father Mark O’Connell, assistant for canonical affairs, presented the first draft of the revised senior priest policy to the archdiocese’s Presbyteral Council in April. Since then, the proposed changes have been presented to more than 400 priests of the archdiocese at eight regional meetings.

Under the current policy, retired priests have the option of four types of housing. They can choose to live in a nursing home, an assisted living facility, a rectory or to live on their own.

Presently, a retired priest can choose the housing option he prefers, without regard to medical necessity or financial means. The archdiocese pays the full cost of the housing, plus an additional stipend that varies based on the housing type.

The proposed policy, however, would provide a flat stipend of $1,889 per month regardless of the type of housing chosen.

As of January 2006, the cost of room and board at a parish for a retired priest will be $600 a month.

"The responsibility of the archdiocese is to have an adequate place for retired priests to live," Father O'Connell said. "Providing a clean, organized rectory practically fulfills our role on how much we need to fund. We will pay [the senior priest] a stipend, and from that stipend they will pay room and board to the parish."

Retired priests living in nursing homes or in assisted living facilities would be required to pay part of their housing if their personal assets exceed $75,000.

"If you have personal assets over $75,000, we believe that you should be paying part of the bill for your assisted living or nursing home facility. It is a much higher cap that any lay person is going to get," Father O'Connell said.

In addition, if a priest does not have sufficient assets, medical certification would be required before the archdiocese pays the additional cost for assisted living or nursing home facilities.

According to Father O’Connell, senior priests living in rectories will see an increase in their income and those living on their own will see little change.

The need for the change was widely accepted by priests, Father O’Connell said

"There were very few objections to the basic structure of the new policy," he said.

At the same time, Father O’Connell said, the meetings with the priests have also helped the archdiocese understand some of the priests’ concerns about the changes.

"The first two meetings were very challenging as we were learning from the priests," he said.

Those meetings have produced 150 suggested changes to the original draft. The clergy fund board was scheduled to meet June 8 to begin reviewing those suggestions.

Once that process is complete a second draft will be prepared and presented to the Presbyteral Council and to the priests.