Diocese Appeal Hurting
Contributions down after Reports of Priest Sex Abuse

By Rita Ciolli
March 26, 2003

For a quarter of a century, Len Mazzeo has responded to the annual fund-raising drives by the Diocese of Rockville Centre. But not this year, not with the "horrible scandal" of priest sexual abuse fresh in his mind.

"I believe in the Bishop's Appeal and the good things the appeal does," said Mazzeo. But withholding his check is the only leverage the retired airline worker said he can have over the local hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

"Unfortunately, I cannot get the attention of the leadership of the diocese any other way," said Mazzeo, of Seaford, who instead is giving his pastor money specifically for the parish electric bill. Four of the priests accused of abusing children on Long Island have at one time been assigned to his parish, St. James in Seaford.

Mazzeo said he wants the leadership to be more open and responsive to its parishioners. "The status quo has got to end," he said.

Mazzeo is not alone. The 2003 Bishop's Annual Appeal is down 34 percent from the pledges it had at this time a year ago, according to the Diocese. About $7 million, just less than half of this year's goal, has been pledged in the crucial first three months, when the most intense effort is made to recruit donors. This year, that came at a time when the diocese was rocked by a Suffolk County grand jury report that found it had covered up sexual abuse of children by priests.

Big contributors who made early pledges have already received a second solicitation advising them the fund is in trouble. And the diocese has hired an outside fund-raising consulting firm.

At the current pace, it is unlikely the diocese will reach its goal of $15 million. By this time last year, $10.5 million of the $15-million goal had been pledged, and the fund drive still fell $1.7 million short. Last year was the first time in 24 years that the appeal failed to reach its goal.

Joanne Novarro, a diocesan spokeswoman, attributes "some of this decline to the sexual abuse scandal but also to the sluggish economy, the depressed stock market and fears of war and terrorism."

Novarro said it is a "hopeful sign" that pledges increased recently after the diocese released financial audits for the 2002 appeal. If contributions don't increase, she said, "there will be some belt-tightening."

Novarro said not giving to the appeal hurts the parishes and Catholic Charities, which has received $1.9 million every year from the appeal, approximately 14 percent of the total raised last year.

Nationally, Catholic gift-giving has remained stable, except in places where there has been a considerable number of incidents of priests abusing children.

"What you are seeing right now is that collections are down - Boston, Los Angeles, Tucson; wherever there was a problem with the sexual abuse crisis, there is a direct correlation," said Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities.

"Those dioceses with no abuse problems, good leadership and transparent accounting practices seem to be holding their own," said Butler, whose organization is a consortium of 50 foundations and wealthy families committed to Catholic philanthropy.

Each diocese is its own financial entity, a nonprofit institution that owns real estate, invests its holdings and, in the case of Rockville Centre, operates its own bank, Diocesan Deposit and Loan.

From 2000 to 2001, donations to the annual appeals in U.S. dioceses rose 5 percent to $561 million, according to statistics compiled by the foundation. In 2001, U.S. Catholics put $5.7 billon in the weekly collection basket, an increase of 4 percent over the previous year, Butler said.

Many parishes across the nation and on Long Island are reporting that their weekly collections are steady. "They are blaming the bishops for the problems, not so much their local pastors," said Charles Zech, an economics professor at Villanova University who studies Catholic Church finances.

However, to some Catholics in the Rockville Centre Diocese, considered one of the richest in the nation, the bishop's appeal has turned into a referendum on the bishop himself.

"When my envelope arrived, I put a zero in the box and wrote no money until 'Bishop Murphy begins to respect his priests and his people,'" said Patricia O'Neill, a parishioner of St. Agnes Cathedral parish in Rockville Centre for 42 years. "His arrogance knows no bounds."

Parishioners in the cathedral parish, of which Murphy is the head cleric, are particularly angry with the bishop for displacing four elderly nuns when he converted the top floor of a large convent on the cathedral grounds for his private residence. Pledges at St. Agnes are down considerably, with only 63 percent of the $337,000 goal being reached so far this year.

Anticipating some resistance, the diocese tried to address these concerns in the materials sent to Long Island Catholics in January. Murphy has said none of the money is used for financial settlements or legal fees related to sexual misconduct, nor on the $1.1-million renovation to convert part of a former convent into a residence.

The bishop's appeal is structured so that parishes meeting their goals, which are set by the diocese, get 30 percent of the money returned. If the goal is reached, 80 percent of any additional contributions will be refunded to the parish. Murphy increased the rebate formula and speeded up the timetable for their delivery late last year to put more emphasis on the returns to the parish.

The Long Island regional chapter of the grassroots group Voice of the Faithful announced last month that it would not support the appeal and created a fund called the Long Island Voice of Compassion Fund, which supports charities funded by the appeal. So far it has collected $3,400.

Kevin Connors, co-chairman of the group's finance committee, said any shortfall in the appeal doesn't necessarily have to hurt Catholic Charities and other program. Connors said he doesn't agree with the view that sending a message to the bishop "has to hurt the lepers in Calcutta." He said the diocese could use some of the $316 million it is holding in its bank. Novarro, the diocese spokeswoman, countered that all of that money does not belong to the diocese, but is owned by its parishes, schools and other entities.

So far, only 11 parishes have reached their goals and some are far behind. St. James in Seaford is at 42 percent of its goal, compared with reaching 75 percent of its goal by early March last year. Some of the larger parishes are also off, including St. Mary's in Manhasset, where $143,000 has been pledged toward a goal of $255,000.

Anticipating that rebate checks are going to be smaller this year, pastors are accepting specific donations to the parish alone from donors who are not giving to the annual appeal but want to make sure that parish coffers are not hurt.

That's what Diane Garretson of West Islip learned to do at a meeting of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish chapter of a Voice of the Faithful meeting. "I put my contributions in a white envelope and bring it to the rectory," said Garretson, who said she will contribute to the appeal when she has a better understanding of how her money is being spent.

At the same parish, Ted Gladkowski marks his envelope specifically for the heating bill. "I am trying to make a statement," he said.

1) 'I put my contributions in a white envelope and bring it to the rectory.'

- Diane Garretson of West Islip, who said she will contribute to the Bishop's Appeal when she has a better understanding of how her money is being spent. 2) 'What you are seeing right now is that collections are down - Boston, Los Angeles, Tucson; wherever there was a problem with the sexual abuse crisis, there is a direct correlation.'- Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities


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