By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In overwhelming fashion, the U.S. bishops today approved a new church law requiring bishops to obtain approval from their diocesan finance council and college of consultors for five specific financial decisions:
•tGoing into debt beyond $1 million for a diocese with more than a half-million Catholics, and $500,000 for dioceses with smaller populations;
•tLegal settlements exceeding those same amounts;
•tRunning a business not directly related to the spiritual or charitable purposes of the church;
•tAny contract or agreement that involves a potential conflict of interest for the bishop or other senior diocesan officials;
•tGoing into bankruptcy.
The measure passed with 98.6 percent support, meaning only two negative votes were cast. To become church law, however, the new rules will require Vatican approval.
To some extent, the new financial controls have been interpreted as a response to a series of financial scandals and headaches that have beset the Catholic church in recent years, including an estimated $2 billion paid in legal settlements related to the sex abuse crisis, as well as situations such as a $30 million deficit in the Detroit archdiocese to fund the under-utilized John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
Money management in the church also hit the headlines in recent months with a survey from Villanova University estimating that some 85 percent of American dioceses reported some problems with embezzlement of church funds within the last five years.
A proposed amendment from Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Oregon, that would have created an exemption from the requirement for approval of legal settlements when the money comes from insurance funds rather than diocesan funds was rejected. A proposal from Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to include “other diocesan employees and finance committee members” among those with potential conflicts of interest was also rejected, on the grounds that those figures can be included in local diocesan policies.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver told NCR this morning that the new measures are not a response to any specific crisis, but rather “an attempt to meet the standards of our times.”
“I don’t think it’s a public relations exercise,” Chaput said.