SR Diocese's $16 million 'Miracle'

By Guy Kovner
Press Democrat [Santa Rosa CA]
May 17, 2003

Santa Rosa's Roman Catholic diocese, recovering from a legacy of child-abusing priests and financial mismanagement, has raised more than $16 million in a campaign built on a promise to restore money to parishes and schools that was lost at the height of the scandal.

The success of the Santa Rosa capital campaign, the first such broad-based campaign in the diocese's 41-year history, has gained national attention as an example of Catholic faith's overcoming the failings of some priests and bishops.

A group consisting of clergy, laity and new Bishop Daniel Walsh devised the $20 million capital campaign two years ago, intent on repaying a $9 million debt to North Coast parishes and parochial schools and underwriting future needs.

Many in the diocese, which has 140,000 parishioners from Petaluma to the Oregon border, were surprised by the campaign's success in a diocese that had never raised more than $1 million in a year.

"It's a miracle," said Dennis Crandall, principal at Cardinal Newman High School, where a new multiuse building will be constructed with campaign proceeds.

Two allocations totaling $1.2 million have been made so far to make up losses to parishes and schools, said Mike Urick, diocese finance officer. Church officials would not disclose payments to individual parishes, which are determined by the diocese's Finance Council.

Church leaders and lay Catholics attribute the campaign's success in reaching 80 percent of the $20 million goal to the steadfastness of parishioners despite well-publicized sins and shortcomings of the clergy.

They also credit Walsh, who took over the troubled diocese three years ago, with restoring trust through able management and involving the laity in church finances.

"He has done a superb job," said Yvette Fallandy, a retired college professor and St. Eugene's parishioner, who, like others, sought answers in the wake of the diocese's financial collapse in 1999.

"The basic faith of the people has been tested and tried and proven authentic," Walsh said. "It really doesn't have that much to do with me at all."

Santa Rosa's experience mirrors a trend in larger dioceses, including Baltimore, Arlington, Va., Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, where dioceses are reporting fund-raising gains in the wake of sex scandals. Boston, where the scandal ultimately brought the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and where parishioners continue to seek change, remains an exception.

The success of the Santa Rosa capital campaign helps soften a financial downside. Proceeds from Sunday plate collections, which are separate from the capital campaign and are used to pay parish operating expenses, are down, officials said, without giving any figures.

The dropoff may be because people are "stretched thin" by both the economic slowdown and having made a sizable pledge to the capital campaign, said Deirdre Frontczak, diocese spokeswoman.

Attendance at Sunday Mass is also down, possibly due to fallout from the sex abuse scandal. "There are people who are upset and embittered and just aren't coming to church," Frontczak said.

Scandal upon scandal

The sex abuse scandal grew into a national crisis last year with revelations that the Boston Diocese had transferred pedophile priests to other parishes.

In Santa Rosa, the scandal surfaced in 1994, with revelations of allegations, lawsuits and criminal investigations of priest misconduct going back two decades. The low point came in 1999 with the resignation of Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann over his own sexual misconduct with a priest and the subsequent collapse of diocesan finances in part because of payments for sexual abuse.

In 1999, schools and parishes throughout the North Coast diocese were stunned by the loss of $9 million of their funds and the resulting freeze on long-anticipated projects. Overall, the diocese's deficit amounted to $16 million.

Ziemann's two immediate predecessors, Bishops Mark Hurley and John Steinbock, had failed to remove child-abusing priests, and the area's first bishop, Leo T. Maher, left the diocese bankrupt in 1969.

In Ziemann's wake, the diocese acknowledged bad investments, revealed the monies spent were from funds provided by individual parishes, and put in place a committee to review finances. A separate Sensitive Issues Committee began reviewing both past and any new allegations of sexual misconduct.

The Finance Council, a group consisting of Bishop Walsh, clergy and laity, devised the capital campaign and hired a professional consultant -- on issues including its goal and uses of the money -- as a key part of the diocese's fiscal recovery.

Many were surprised by the scope -- and success -- of the unprecedented fund-raising campaign.

The pastors were astounded," Frontczak said.

Debts being paid first

Pastors and parochial school administrators are now opening checks, in keeping with the diocese's pledge that the $9 million debt to the parishes and schools will be paid off before any other campaign funds are spent.

Payments are prorated according to the loss, officials said, and some of the diocese's 42 parishes have received much more than others. Officials said they are not disclosing the amounts because of concern that parishes would dispute the allocations.

The payments will continue as campaign pledges are paid over five years.

"It's kind of fun to get those checks," Cardinal Newman's Crandall said. "It feels good."

Cardinal Newman will use part of the money to construct a multipurpose building that had been planned in 1999 and restore $74,000 to a student jog-a-thon fund.

Campaign proceeds also are helping pay for a major renovation of 100-year-old St. Philip the Apostle Church in Occidental, said the Rev. Walt Rogina, the pastor.

The campaign, which runs through June, was designed to pay off the $9 million debt and meet the diocese's future needs. For one year -- 2002 -- it supplanted the bishop's annual appeal, which traditionally raises money for diocesan operating expenses, such as priests' salaries.

The 2003 annual appeal will be launched later this year, Frontczak said. A capital campaign may not come again for another 10 or 20 years, she said.

Campaign pledges currently total $16,071,327 from 5,649 donors, plus an undisclosed number of major donors, according to diocese records. Fifteen of the diocese's 42 parishes met or exceeded their fund-raising goal, although the campaign is just gearing up in the final bloc of eight parishes.

The largesse of local Catholics and the immediate distribution of proceeds to the parishes earned compliments from a Washington, D.C., group that monitors and promotes funding of religious causes.

"It's a remarkable amount of money, especially considering their history," said Frank Butler, president of the Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, Inc.

'Doing things right'

His organization commissioned a nationwide survey last year that found 79 percent of Catholics had not changed their diocese-level contributions in the wake of the sex abuse scandal.

The survey, conducted by the Gallup Organization, also found that 79 percent of Catholics think bishops should give a full accounting of the financial settlements arising from sex abuse scandals and 68 percent favor public release of an annual independent audit of diocesan finances.

The Santa Rosa Diocese has released an audit and acknowledged payments of $7.4 million to about 40 victims of former priests.

Butler also noted that Walsh has involved lay Catholics in diocese decision-making, including the Finance Council and a pastoral council.

"They seem to be doing things right in Santa Rosa and that's encouraging," he said.

Martin McCormick, a Santa Rosa mortgage banker who helped plan the fund-raising campaign, said the $16 million tally was unprecedented in the diocese's 41-year history.

Annual appeals during Ziemann's tenure in the 1990s raised $400,000 to $500,000, and the diocese's previous fund-raising record was just over $1 million in 2001, officials said.

Also notable are the fund-raising efforts of five parishes that have "combined campaigns" under way, meaning donations are being sought both for the diocesan capital drive and for the capital needs of the individual parishes.

The following churches have each met their diocesan goals and are working toward completing their larger parish goals, according to diocesan records: St. Phillip the Apostle in Occidental, St. Eugene Cathedral in Santa Rosa, St. Vincent de Paul in Petaluma, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Rohnert Park, and St. John the Baptist in Napa.

$3,681 average pledge

The beginning of the capital campaign, named "A New Millennium -- A New Beginning," came at a bad time. Following a "quiet phase" that included appeals to wealthy Catholics, the campaign was launched in the spring of 2002, just as the national sex abuse scandal was mounting.

Nonetheless, North Coast Catholics pledged an average of $3,681 to the campaign, diocese records show.

"I think it says that Catholics have faith in their church," McCormick said.

Mary O'Brien, a lifelong Catholic and diocese Finance Council member, said faith triumphed over the well-publicized failings of some church officials. "We're all very human," she said. "We learn from our mistakes, and I think the church has."

Walsh said local Catholics believe changes have been made and reiterated an earlier promise: "The problems of the past will not be repeated here."

When Nevada's single diocese was divided in 1995, Walsh was charged with building a new Las Vegas-based diocese. Some local Catholics say Walsh's accomplishment there was why Pope John Paul II appointed him to cope with the frayed tempers and financial morass in Santa Rosa.

In the diocese bulletin, Walsh declared: "The campaign will truly be a new beginning for the church in our region."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or


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