Merrimack Parish Withholding Funds from Diocese

By Dan McLean
Sunday News Correspondent
Downloaded March 16, 2003

MERRIMACK - With scandal lingering in the air and funds running short, the St. John Neumann Parish had to make a choice - either send money to the diocese or keep it to run its own programs.

They have chosen, for now, to keep the money in Merrimack.

In a presentation made last month, the parish announced that it would be $101,292 short of its projected budget of $561,694, forcing difficult choices.

The theft of the Christmas collection by the Rev. Steven Kucharski is just a small portion of the deficit. The rest is attributed to fewer people giving less money, a trend that started in April 2002.

According to a Feb. 2 survey conducted by the parish, attendance is down 11 percent from last year and 20 percent of attending parishioners have either reduced or stopped their contributions.

Although some speculated that Kucharski's admitted theft led to a decline in donations, the survey shows otherwise.

"Priest abuse" was cited by 57 percent for why they stopped or reduced contributions; "Bishop (John) McCormack" was selected by 56 percent; "abuse of trust" was chosen by 54 percent; "economy" was cited by 37 percent; and the "recent theft" was cited by 21 percent.

"Bishop McCormack is the primary reason for the drop in funding. If he is aware of it, he chooses to do nothing about it," said Ed Kirby, a 20-year St. John Neumann parishioner.

"People are withholding money because they are angry with the bishop. And they think if they put money in the collection pan, it will end up in the bishop's hands to pay (sex abuse) victims," he said.

Kirby has not curtailed his donations to the parish, but has stopped giving to the diocese. He is confident that once McCormack steps down, contributions will return.

"He will not willingly go. It's up to the people to demand that he go," Kirby said. "And I just pray to God that it happens."

To keep the parish functioning, the church's finance committee, made up seven parishioners and the pastor, has decided not to pay the diocese's $84,649 annual assessment.

The assessment is, in effect, a 15 percent tax established by the diocese.

According to Manchester Diocese spokesman Patrick McGee, the assessment is based on the income of the parish. Typically, he said, at least 80 percent of the donations collected at the parish stay in the parish.

The diocese uses the assessment to pay for centralized expenses, such as Catholic schools, clergy pensions, health benefits, pastoral services and insurance.

The insurance program covers liability, slips and falls, and sexual misconduct lawsuits.

"We don't have any big central savings account," he said.

As of Dec. 10, 2002, however, the diocese had enough money in an unrestricted savings account to cover $2.2 million in sexual abuse settlements. The remainder of the $7.7 million pay-out was covered by their insurance company, McGee said.

"Over the years, you do accumulate some extra revenue," McGee said.

Kirby is skeptical about the diocese's accounting.

"It's smoke and mirrors," he said. "Figures don't lie, but liars figure."

McGee said the Manchester Diocese planned to release a detailed accounting of its finances by the end of March.

McGee said the Merrimack parish would not be punished for not paying the assessment.

"We'll work with them any way we can," he said. "We work together to solve our problems like any family would."

Aside from withholding their diocesan assessment, St. John Neumann will postpone an $18,676 payment on mortgage principal to balance their books.

Deacon Richard Cloutier, who is acting as St. John Neumann's administrator, emphasized the programs their parish has and will continue to offer to the community.

"I wish (the news media) would stop looking at the negative and start looking at the good stuff," he said. "This is a vibrant, active community and still is, despite everything that's happened."

According to Cloutier, the parish gives food to 50 families a week and distributes $50,000 a year to local residents who need help paying rent, buying heating fuel and purchasing medicine. The deacon also said the parish provides "A Day Away" program that assists families with an Alzheimer's patient.

Merrimack's parish, which serves 1,600 families, is not the only church with funding difficulties. Last week, a committee appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops selected John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City to conduct a comprehensive study that will analyze the magnitude of sexual abuse in the church and determine the extent it has hurt the church financially.

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