Can boycott threats force dioceses to be financially transparent?

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

It worked in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, but may not elsewhere

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, in his capacity as the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, announced on July 17 that he would take a number of steps to investigate and improve the management of the finances of that diocese, including a full audit.

The audit was a demand made by Lay Catholic Voices for Change, a group advocating transparency in light of accusations of sexual harassment and financial impropriety committed by Michael Bransfield, the former bishop of that diocese. The group had threatened to stop sending money to or through the diocese unless this demand was met.

The idea of individual Catholics refraining from giving money to their dioceses as a result of the sexual abuse crisis has been kicked around in a number of thinkpieces, both for and against, over the past year. But this is the first time that people intending to do so have organised themselves in decent numbers and achieved tangible results by threatening a boycott.

A question then naturally arises: will the Church see more of this style of protest in the months and years to come? That any diocese is dependent on the people in the pews continuing to give it money goes without saying, and so boycotting donations seems like it would be an effective way to agitate for a number of things.

But I am sceptical that the success achieved here will lead to imitators. The situation in Wheeling-Charleston is not really comparable to that in the average diocese. The explicit demand made by Lay Catholic Voices for Change in a letter to Archbishop Lori had nothing to do with sexual abuse and everything to do with investigating Bishop Bransfield’s misuse of diocesan funds.

“Until and unless the diocese agrees to conduct an audit by an independent, trustworthy, and new auditor, release to the lay public an audited financial statement complete with the auditor’s opinion, and lay out a timetable for the audit and the release, we will encourage all West Virginia Catholics to not donate money that would otherwise go to or through the diocese,” the letter says.

Since the motivating issue here is the diocesan finances, protesters have an easy enough time identifying what they want the diocese to do: audit everything and release the findings. But other protesters seeking to tie the boycott to something about sexual abuse will have a harder time deciding what concrete steps, exactly, they want their diocese to take in order to call off the boycott.

So, while the boycott is a powerful tool that got results in this one case, it seems unlikely that this one success will inspire copycat attempts elsewhere.