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Tom Scheck, Published December 21 2013

Catholics weigh giving amid abuse revelations

Joe Schmidt’s church can count on him this year for a Christmas donation. His generosity, however, won’t reach the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

He plans to send only $1 to Archbishop John Nienstedt’s annual Catholic Services Appeal, which helps run the archdiocese. The dollar will come with a message of frustration over allegations that archdiocese leaders for decades covered up sexual abuse by priests.

“I give them a nominal amount just to say I considered it, but I’m going in a different direction,” said Schmidt, a parishioner at Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis. The dollar “sends the message that I’m no longer going to support the administration.”

Allegations against church leaders in recent months have triggered anger among many parishioners. Some Catholics say they’re looking at ways to punish the archdiocese for how it’s handled the clergy sex abuse scandal.

Christmas is a key fundraising season and this week could affect how the archdiocese moves forward with other projects, including whether to move forward with a $160 million capital campaign, a decision church leaders are set to make in January.

The revelations of abuse, which have shocked and angered some parishioners, could have financial consequences beyond the archdiocese’s own coffers – for those of parishes and other Catholic institutions – particularly at the high-giving holiday time. News this past week that Nienstedt would step away from public ministry while police investigate allegations he touched a boy several years ago threatened to make matters worse. Nienstedt denies the allegations.

Sue O’Brien of Arden Hills said she’s still giving to St. Joan of Arc but stopped giving to the archdiocese.

“I cannot support what is happening at the archdiocese right now and I cannot trust that the money that I give to the archdiocese is going to go anyplace other than to take care of their legal issues,” she said.

Both O’Brien and Schmidt say they won’t give again to the archdiocese until Archbishop Nienstedt is completely removed as leader of the Twin Cities archdiocese.

‘A great need'

It’s hard to say what impact such sentiments will have on parish budgets and the bottom line of the archdiocese. The Catholic Church isn’t required by law to report its financial activity. The archdiocese only releases limited information about its finances in summarized annual statements.

But the timing of the scandal, the investigation into Nienstedt and the recent release of a list of 30 priests who the church says have been “credibly accused” of abusing children couldn’t come at a worse time.

“A very large percentage of our income occurs at Christmas and Easter and more so at Christmas because of the tax situations that people are dealing with, so it’s significant,” said the Rev. Michael Byron, pastor of St. Pascal Baylon in St. Paul.

Byron said his parish is facing debt that will take 25 years to pay off. The church owes more than $100,000 to the archdiocese for past assessments and is also paying off a mortgage for a church that was rebuilt 10 years ago. He said he’s encouraging his parish to continue giving.

“I think people are aware here that we have a great need for their support,” Byron said. The church also gets “a good deal of help from the archdiocese – financially and otherwise – in terms of the resources that keep this parish going,” he added. “We would be very myopic if we were to look at it only in terms of giving to this parish or not.”

Byron said his and other parishes benefit from the annual Catholic Services Appeal run by the archdiocese. Part of the $9.3 million raised annually subsidizes his Catholic school and the children who go there. The archdiocese also uses the annual appeal to contribute to a pension plan for priests, seminary training and social service organizations in the Twin Cities.

Archdiocese officials are emphasizing that spending in their appeals to donors.

“I think our people are weathering this very well,” said Greg Pulles, director of development at the archdiocese. “These are difficult times but I think folks are rallying around their parish priest and their parish.”

Appeal funds are dedicated to specific ministerial work, but they’re part of a larger budget controlled by the archbishop, Pulles said.

That budget includes the costs the archdiocese has faced related to clergy abuse.

Pulles understands that some parishioners are upset, but said the church will come back stronger.

“We feel very sorry that this has happened but this is not the time to forget the mission,” he said.

Wanting assurances

The archdiocese is also a strong supporter of the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul, a shelter run by Catholic Charities where roughly 250 homeless people sleep nightly.

Catholic Charities CEO Tim Marx said he’s received calls from donors wanting assurances that their donations will not go to the archdiocese.

“We are a separate independent organization from the archdiocese,” Marx said. “Resources that come to us from all of those 20,000 donors and other sources, stay with us, solely and exclusively to serve those most in need in our community.”

Most of the center’s income comes from donors and government sources, he said, with only about 3 percent from the archdiocese.

It’s too early to say whether the clergy abuse scandal has prompted donors to change their giving, Marx said.

Some donors say they’re giving more at the expense of the archdiocese.

Michael Darger, who attends St. Frances Cabrini in Minneapolis, said his family decided to stop giving directly to the archdiocese. Instead, he said they give to other Catholic causes like Catholic Charities.

“I still give as much because I think the Catholic Church does a lot of good work and I believe in the causes, but I shifted which organizations within the Catholic umbrella that I would directly support.”

National researchers say Darger’s approach is common.

Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that many Catholics dropped support for their respective diocese if a clergy sex abuse scandal occurred there. But the national survey found Catholics just increased giving to other Catholic causes.

“They say mentally ‘If I’m going to give $100, I’m going to give it to my local pastor because he needs to keep the lights on and the heat on and keep the parish going,” said researcher Mary Gautier.