News Analysis

The US Church’s $3bn question

Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, centre (CNS)

On the same day that law enforcement raided the chancery of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, the attorney general of New Mexico executed a search warrant on the chancery of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. Officials were looking for information on two priests the archdiocese had named in a list they released of clergy who had been credibly accused of sexual impropriety. The archdiocese told media that it was looking forward “to continued cooperation with the attorney general and other law enforcement agencies in these efforts”.

But Santa Fe’s woes were just beginning. The next day, Archbishop John Webster called a press conference to announce that they would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “I wish to make clear that our first and foremost concern is the victims of sexual abuse and our desire to do all we can to provide for their just compensation,” Archbishop Webster said. “We believe that Chapter 11 is the most equitable way for the archdiocese to address its responsibility to the victim-survivors.”

That the two chancery raids took place on the same day is probably a coincidence. It’s unlikely that the district attorney of Montgomery County, Texas and the attorney general of New Mexico are in close contact. Then again, an unnamed federal agency was involved in the raid on the Houston chancery; it is not impossible that the agency had a hand in coordinating the two departments.

On October 18, the New York Times reported that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had opened an investigation into several Pennsylvania dioceses. A week later, the DOJ sent a request to every diocese in the country that they not destroy any documents relating to sexual abuse. The message was clear: any of you could be next.

One thing is certain: Santa Fe will not be the last diocese to go bankrupt compensating victims of clerical abusers in the wake of the McCarrick scandal. Santa Fe is the 20th diocese to declare bankruptcy due to sexual abuse. The others stem from the “Spotlight” investigations of the early 2000s.

According to BishopAccountability.com, settlements with victims have cost the American Church upwards of $3 billion. The Archdiocese of Portland alone paid $75 million, with 170 people claiming to have been abused by their priests. It went broke in July of 2004. The Oregon province of the Jesuits paid a total of $166 million to nearly 500 victims until it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. In 2005, the Diocese of Stockton paid a single plaintiff $3 million. In May this year, the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis agreed to pay $210 million to 450 victims.

Many observers believe that fewer victims will emerge from this, the second wave of the abuse crisis. Moreover, as clerical abuse has become (sadly) more familiar, payouts have become smaller.

But as Mass attendance continues to decline and Catholics protest against their bishops by withholding money from the collection plate, the sums necessary to break a diocesan bank also dwindles.

Catholics put an average of $10 a week into the collection plate. That means it will take 300 million bread-winning fathers, young mothers, hardworking immigrants, college students, and pious old ladies to just pay off that $3 billion settlement to abuse victims. And that’s not counting priests’ salaries, charitable works and other equally worthy expenses.

The laity are understandably reluctant to see their hard-earned money used to pay legal fees. And that’s why the US Church is experiencing a serious cash-flow crisis.