August 11, 2005

Mass. lawmakers press Church to open books

By Jason Szep

BOSTON (Reuters) - A group of Massachusetts lawmakers are
trying to force the Catholic Church to open its financial
books, an unprecedented step in a state at the heart of a
scandal over pedophile priests.

Under the proposed law, the state's churches would need to
disclose the health of their finances, a move resisted by
religious leaders who say it contravenes the separation of
church and state enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

The proposal, debated this week in the chambers and
corridors of Boston, the state capital, follows a sexual abuse
crisis that erupted in 2002 when many U.S. bishops were found
to have moved priests known to have abused minors to new
parishes instead of defrocking them or reporting them to

Since then, some U.S. dioceses have been forced to file for
bankruptcy protection from lawsuits by abuse victims seeking
millions of dollars.

The Boston Archdiocese, squeezed by the cost of settlements
with nearly 1,000 sex-abuse victims, has shut more than 60
churches to raise money, triggering protests by churchgoers and
raising questions over how the Church is using its donations
from Sunday Mass and other sources.

"We want to know what they do with the donations, what
property they own, and what is their debt?" Marian Walsh, a
lawmaker who drafted the proposal, told Reuters on Thursday, a
day after presenting it to the state's legislature.

"How can you tell your flock that they don't have a right
to know what happens to their donations," she said.

The proposal, backed by 35 lawmakers and Massachusetts'
secretary of state, must be approved by a lawmaking committee
before the legislature votes on it in September.


It has struck a nerve in Boston, whose archdiocese has
agreed to pay about $86 million to settle claims over abuse by

The national scandal first erupted in Massachusetts in 2002
and then spread to other U.S. dioceses, prompting a drop in
donations at churches across the country.

"It's no accident that this is happening in Boston," said
Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology and religion at Boston
University. "The relationship between the Catholic Church and
the Boston public is a very contentious one."

The state's Republican Governor, Mitt Romney, has promised
to consider the bill, a stand seen by some as surprising for a
devout Mormon who has recently staked out conservative
positions on sensitive social issues such as abortion ahead of
a likely presidential bid.

"We were expecting a veto right off the bat from him," said
Tim Lyons, Walsh's legislative aide. "I think it's getting a
lot of support."

The Massachusetts Council of Churches, representing 1,700
non-Catholic congregations, said the U.S. Constitution protects
church freedoms and that regularly compiling and releasing
financial statements would put a strain on church volunteers.

"This is an issue of religious liberty," Laura Everett, a
program associate at the council, told Reuters, calling the
bill "excessive influence by the government."

"We're opposing it," she said.

A conservative Christian group, the Massachusetts Family
Institute, and the Catholic Action League have also made a
stand against the bill.

Some see the legislation as a test of how much influence
Boston's archdiocese -- the nation's fourth-largest -- still
wields in a region known historically for deep political roots
in the Roman Catholic Church.

Lyons said Massachusetts once passed a law in 1930 that
called on churches and charities to open their financial books,
but that law differed because it was not enforced and lacked
teeth. Churches were made exempt in 1954.

"It seems to be that in 1954 the Church had a lot of
clout," he added.