Bishop Robert Finn has many powerful friends on the Catholic Right. As a hard charging leader of what he has called "the church militant" and one of four American Opus Dei bishops, Finn is clearly one of their own. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary that his allies have chosen to side with an element in the institutional church obsessed with unquestioned authority and against Catholic children and their families. While Bill Donohue of the Catholic League is ubiquitous, he is not the only one rallying to defend Finn's handling of alleged child abuser Fr. Shawn Ratigan. It is time to throw open the shutters and allow some daylight into the shadows and dark corners of Catholic neoconservatism.
The Catholic League
While Bill Donohue and the Catholic League need no introduction, it is worth a quick review of their key members and advisers who share responsibility for the League's support for Finn.
Among the League's Board of Directors is Raymond Arroyo of Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) who is reputed to be either an Opus Dei member or cooperator (but who in any case has certainly vigorously defended the controversial group). Also on the board is Candace de Russy, an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute, a neocon think tank that features Lewis "Scooter" Libby (of Valerie Plame fame) as a Senior Vice President. The League's Board of Advisers is populated by such leading neocons as Hadley Arkes, Mary Ann Glendon, Robert P. George, Michael Novak and George Weigel, who has sanitized past Vatican failures regarding pedophile clergy and recently declared his scorn for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Another Catholic League adviser is Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, who in many ways is the key to Donohue's activities in Kansas City-St. Joseph. Monaghan has, over the years, advanced the twin agendas of laissez-faire economics and ultra-orthodox Catholicism with money and political muscle. He has helped to fund Operation Rescue and Fr. Frank Pavone's Priests for Life as well as Legatus, the ultra-conservative millionaires-only club he founded. And according to Forbes, he has reportedly done the same for Opus Dei. Monaghan is also involved with another Finn defender, Opus Bono Sacerdotii.
Opus Bono Sacerdotii
The Kansas City Star recently reported that the Fr. Ratigan, the alleged pedophile priest, had received a psychiatric evaluation at Bishop Finn's behest. But there are questions about the psychiatrist's impartiality as well as his diagnosis. The Star pointed out:
Richard Fitzgibbons, who examined Ratigan in January after disturbing photographs of children were found on the priest's computer, is an adviser to Opus Bono Sacerdotii, according to the group's website. The nonprofit organization provides services to accused and imprisoned priests, including financial, legal and emotional support.
After his evaluation, Fitzgibbons told Finn that Ratigan was not a pedophile and that his pornography problem was a result of loneliness and depression, according to a report commissioned by the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese.
(Note that Fitzgibbons's diagnosis was "loneliness and depression" not pedophilia.)
Opus Bono Sacerdotii (OBS) describes, its mission:
Opus Bono Sacerdotii (Work for the Good of the Priesthood) was founded in response to many sensitive situations with priests requesting confidential assistance for unique problems. These situations may encompass a whole spectrum of circumstances, however, the success in caring for Catholic priests is understanding the uniqueness of each individual and their particular needs, abilities and desires especially as it effects the extraordinary relationship between the natural and supernatural aspect of the person of the priest.
BishopAccountability.org describes OBS co-founders Joseph Maher and Paul Barron as "members of Legatus." This is not unusual. Based in Monaghan's hometown of Detroit, Michigan, many of the key members of Legatus are also affiliated with the Monahan-founded or funded organizations, notably the ultra orthodox Ave Maria University ("AMU"), in Naples, Florida. These include such Catholic Right luminaries as the late neocon activist Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Fr. Thomas G. Guarino, and Fr. Michael Orsi. A stern-looking Donohue is pictured on the OBS homepage next to a link to his piece, "Straight Talk about the Catholic Church and SNAP Exposed." Fr. Orsi's past pronouncements about victims of priestly pedophilia have been controversial. For example, as a December 22, 2008 post at BishopAccountability.org noted:
Orsi's defense of sexually dysfunctional priests is rich with clericalism. This conclusion was highlighted in the book "Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church". Leon Podles, a former federal investigator, is the book's author and, interestingly, a former supporter of AMU. In the chapter "Clerical Accomplices", Dr. Podles describes the pass that Orsi gives to guilty homosexual/pederast/pedophile priests as reflective of a time "in which members of society had unequal status before the law. Such inequality is always irritating, and is often used to protect privileged malefactors - and Orsi resents the loss of privilege."
Orsi uses his Ave Maria Chaplaincy to promote and defend OBS thanks to his two bosses, Ave Maria School of Law Chairman Tom Monaghan and President-Dean Bernard Dobranski. For all of the rants about liberal immorality, attacks on the family, and the "culture wars" penned by Monaghan and Dobranski in their fundraising letters, you'll never hear about the wink-and-nod given to Orsi or OBS in keeping pederasts at the altar.
That these Catholic Right leaders seem to want to save Finn's position as bishop at almost any cost, suggests that their goals for the Church as a bastion of religious and political authoritarianism, takes precedence over everything else -- including the safety and well being of children.
Also related, via Slate, is this article about how the Catholic Church manages to avoid financial disclosure rules that secular organizations are bound to. This information is crucial in understanding how groups such as Opus Bono Sacerdotii have at times been able to utilize the Church's wealth and bureaucratic exemptions to circumvent civil law, a privilege that is obviously unavailable to the rest of the world, despite the group's attempt to portray priests accused of pedophilia as a persecuted minority.
How Rich Is the Catholic Church?
Pope Francis is not just the spiritual leader of one of the world’s major religions: He’s also the head of what’s probably the wealthiest institution in the entire world. The Catholic Church’s global spending matches the annual revenues of the planet’s largest firms, and its assets—huge amounts of real estate, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Vatican City, some of the world’s greatest art—surely exceed those of any corporation by an order of magnitude. But it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to understand exactly how rich the church is. That’s in part because church finances are complicated. But it’s also because, in the United States at least, churches in general are exempted from the financial reporting and disclosure requirements that otherwise apply to nonprofit groups. And it turns out, that exemption may have undesirable consequences.
The main thing we know about Catholic Church finance is that in cash flow terms, the United States is by far the most important branch. America is a rich country with a large population of Catholics. What’s more, America’s Catholic population is a religious minority. That’s meant that, rather than using political clout to influence the shape of mainstream government institutions, as in an overwhelmingly Catholic country such as Brazil, the Catholic Church in the United States has created a parallel state: a vast web of schools, hospitals, universities, and charities that serve millions of clients.
Our best window into the overall financial picture of American Catholicism comes from a 2012 investigation by the Economist, which offered a rough-and-ready estimate of $170 billion in annual spending, of which almost $150 billion is associated with church-affiliated hospitals and institutions of higher education. The operating budget for ordinary parishes, at around $11 billion a year, is a relatively small share, and Catholic Charities is a smaller share still. Apple and General Motors, by way of comparison, each had revenue of about $150 billion worldwide in Fiscal Year 2012. Legally speaking, there is no such thing as “the Catholic Church,” which is why these finances get so complicated. As far as the law is concerned, each diocese is a separate legal entity, incorporated in the states where it operates. Generally speaking, they are organized as what’s known as a corporation sole—a legal corporation wholly controlled by the individual bishop rather than a board of directors—and not officially part of any larger transnational spiritual organization. This has led to conflicts during the sex abuse scandals. Lawsuits have caused disputes about how deep the church’s pockets go and who should pay.
On several occasions, abuse-related litigation has inspired dioceses to declare bankruptcy, which offers a rare window into the internal financial organization of the institution. Individual parishes, though operating under the umbrella of the relevant bishop, have a fair degree of financial autonomy. They conduct separate fundraising and maintain separate expenses. That way, parish donors can feel they’re bolstering their particular community and not an impersonal bureaucracy. But it’s common for parish investment funds within a single diocese to be pooled. When a diocese declares bankruptcy, this raises the question of whether pooled parish investment funds are available to be seized by the bishop’s creditors or whether they exist separately.
As a fascinating article in this month’s American Bankruptcy Institute Journal explains, the status of parish investment funds depends on some very subtle details. Both the Diocese of Milwaukee and the Diocese of Wilmington ran pooled investment funds in which a single account simply noted how much each parish had contributed. The difference is that in Wilmington, Del., operating funds were also mingled into the pooled account, whereas in Milwaukee they were kept separate. That small difference ended up costing Wilmington parishes $74 million in exposure to Episcopal creditors. At the same time, as a matter of Canon Law individual parishes can be wholly “suppressed,” merged into other parishes, or otherwise divided up, essentially at the discretion of the bishop—notwithstanding the existence of separate bank accounts. This authority suggests that the diocese does indeed wholly own and control its parishes, but church officials take advantage of the ambiguity, sometimes claiming to fully control its parishes, sometimes—for legal reasons—arguing that the parishes are wholly independent entities.
Given America’s diverse religious landscape, the Catholic Church is hardly unique in taking advantage of the First Amendment to engage in some opaque accounting. It’s simply the largest player in this game. Lawrence Wright’s recent Scientology exposé, Going Clear, reveals egregious exploitation of religious privileges for the personal financial benefit of church leaders. Or consider the case of the Tennessee pastor arrested on money laundering and drug charges only because a local TV news investigation revealed that he was using donations to pay off what amounted to personal debts.
The legal framework that allows for this funny business has been constructed in the name of religious freedom but hardly seems required by that important principle. America has a robust ecology of secular nonprofit groups that manage to abide by fairly stringent accounting and disclosure standards. These help donors know where their money is going and reassure residual claimants that there’s some consistent theory of whose assets are whose. Religion is big business—the Catholic Church the biggest of all—and it deserves to be treated as such in the relevant ways.