Western People 24.1.2023
‘Follow the money’ was the shrewd advice of ‘Deep Throat’, the pseudonym given to the informant who provided information to the Washington Post that unlocked the Watergate scandal back in 1972. In other diverse circumstances, the advice can still hold. Money, even for those with the highest of motives (and even with the best will in the world) can determine actions that, in a given set of circumstances, may seem less than admirable.
Recently in the Irish Independent, columnist Sarah Carey berated authorities in the Irish Catholic Church for their failure to share the great wealth at their disposal with those in greater need. Trolls regularly give a media airing to this perceived indictment, but it can be dismissed on three counts: one, many dioceses and religious orders who can afford it have already given and continue to give huge donations to a series of worthy causes; and, two, those who can’t afford it have to measure what resources they have against their ongoing responsibilities to their members. A third count is that contriving to present the Irish Catholic Church as dripping in wealth betrays a naive and callow disregard for the data, especially when hard-pressed commentators quote the unimaginable wealth of Rome, though (as the dogs in the street know) that wealth, such as it is, is notoriously unrealisable.
In fairness to Sarah Carey and others, part of the difficulty is that the Catholic Church can sometimes be its own worst enemy in this regard. Dioceses and parishes sometimes produce no regular accounts, even though they have a simple and a moral obligation to do so. It’s part of a wider clerical presumption that people have no right or can’t be trusted even with an account of the money they themselves have contributed.
Recently, the diocese of Killala presented its financial account for 2021. Since 2002, when Bishop John Fleming was appointed bishop, the diocesan accounts have been published every year and are placed on the noticeboards of every church in the diocese.
Let me give a summary of the 2021 Killala conclusions.
In the calendar year 2021, income realised a total of €709,930 made up of the following: €276,589 (from the annual diocesan levy on the 22 parishes of the diocese); €289,163 (from interest, dividends and investments); €81,729 (from diocesan collections); and €62,449 from bequests and donations.
In 2021, expenditure came to a total of €532,060 made up the following: €236,899 (for diocesan offices); €72,660 (for the education of priests, renewal courses and retreats); €22,455 (for agencies and stewardship); €20,643 (for religious education, primary); €40,360 (for diocesan publications); €50,000 (for cathedral building fund); €89,043 (for salaries).
The surplus for 2021 was €177,870 less the following deficits: €125,554 (in Sick & Retired Priests’ Fund); €33,292 (in Central Priests’ Fund); and €22,495 (in Diocesan Mission to Brazil). So according to my calculations, the total expenditure for 2021 is €177,870 and the total deficit is €181,341, leaving an overall manageable deficit for 2021 of €3,471.
In his letter to the priests and people of Killala diocese, Bishop Fleming writes that he ‘is deeply conscious of the difficulties and challenges which COVID-19 presented since 2020 to those who suffered bereavement – and couldn’t avail of the usual funeral rituals; to those who cherished weekly or daily Mass – and who were deprived of this during the lockdown; and to the priests who despite the difficulties they encountered ‘offered courageous support to the people’.
Bishop Fleming pointed out that ‘funding parishes and the diocese has become increasingly difficult’ with numbers attending Mass deceasing and costs increasing with the funding of the diocese becoming ‘more challenging’. Conscious of this, he continues, the priests decided on three measures: (i) that their annual salaries be reduced from €19,200 to €18,000 (ii) that those in receipt of the State pension would only receive top-up of €4,828 from parish funds instead of a full salary of €18,000 and that the annual grant of €2,000 to those in receipt of the State pension be abolished. ‘This cost saving on the part of the priests,’ Bishop Fleming continued, ‘has resulted in the very small shortfall of only €3,471’. He concluded: ‘I would like to place on record, therefore, my appreciation of the generosity of the priests of this diocese who, unlike some of their colleagues in other diocese, have decided to forego over €14,000 annually in order to help the parishes and the diocese to meet their annual expenses. I am also conscious that the priests of the diocese have not received a salary increase for nearly 20 years.’
Bishop Fleming ended his letter with a direct appeal: ‘I am aware that many people who do not attend Mass on a weekly basis would, nevertheless, wish to support their parishes, their priests and the work of the diocese. I would ask you, therefore, to consider setting up a Direct Debit in favour of your parish or make an online payment on our diocesan website (www.killala.diocese.org) or use the Tap and Go system which is installed in some churches. Your support in these challenging times is very much appreciated’.
Bishop Fleming’s letter is a model of clarity and directness, a template that other dioceses (and parishes) might follow. It may help to instruct those in the media joining the now tedious ritual rush to condemn the Catholic Church and its bishops and priests by regurgitating populist trolls rather than acquainting themselves with the realities of Catholic life. Not least (as can be seen from the figures above) that there is no Catholic fairy tree (in the Vatican or anywhere else) with money to sort out the homeless crisis in Ireland. Or whatever wheeze media trolls insist on repeating at regular intervals.
Here’s a simple truth – parishes and dioceses have to pay their own way.