When Ralph Martin of Renewal Ministries wrote his “Letter to Troubled Catholics” in response to the latest clergy sexual-abuse scandal, he quoted a Catholic who suggested sending Church leaders a message by withholding donations.
Martin said the disaffected Catholic told him the only way things will change is if the faithful stop giving to the bishops’ national collections and to diocesan and parish collections — “unless they are led by bishops who are willing to call a spade a spade and govern accordingly.”
That cry has been taken up by others, as well, in the wake of the resignation of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick over sexual-abuse allegations involving male minors and seminarians.
“Unfortunately, the only thing that gets the attention of the bishops is money,” said a Register reader in response to Executive Director Dan Burke’s video message — “This Scandal Is the Last Straw — Why Stay in the Catholic Church?” — at NCRegister.com.
The reader went on to say Catholics may have to withhold funding until the bishops are ready to make real changes.
Although it may be too early to tell whether donations are being affected by the scandal, Catholics are clearly displeased and looking for ways to express their concerns.
“Sometimes, the only voice we have is the check that we can write,” said Brice Sokolowski, who started Catholic Fundraiser to help parishes, apostolates, religious communities and others reach out to donors. Sokolowski said that, in his experience, Catholics overall are extremely generous and very loyal when it comes to giving. “But at the same time, when things like this happen, they get really frustrated.”
Sokolowski said, in the current climate, he would advise Catholics to continue supporting their parishes and, if they are concerned about the leadership of their bishops and dioceses, to give to smaller, local Catholic organizations instead of diocesan campaigns.
“If they don’t have the trust and don’t believe the money is going to authentic Catholic things, if ... it has been one campaign after another, and they don’t know where the money goes, I completely understand why a Catholic would not want to give to a diocesan campaign.”
“But,” Sokolowski added, “make sure you support your local priest.”
As president of an evangelistic ministry that depends on the generosity of donors, Martin said in an interview that he nonetheless thinks withholding financial contributions from certain causes may be a good option for laypeople concerned about bishops who are not dealing with immorality and failing to give a clear message about what the Church teaches about sexual sin.
“When you know situations are unhealthy and unsound,” he said, “I certainly wouldn’t support those situations. On the other hand, there are many wonderful priests and bishops, and we should definitely support them.”
But Martin added that withholding money is just one avenue, and he would urge laypeople to pursue other options as well, including writing letters to bishops.
“There are too many people who have suffered under false teaching, false preaching and sexual harassment and are afraid to speak up,” he said. “Everybody needs to speak up. If the proper authority doesn’t respond, it’s time to band together with others and demand accountability.”
As for the impact on his own ministry, Martin said he expects donations to increase, not decline.
“Most of our donors are here because they think there’s a clear voice here,” he said. “In and out of season, we’ve been trying to preach the Catholic faith without compromise. ... The people supporting us want a clear voice, and I expect donations to go up.”
Mundelein Seminary in Illinois has not seen any decrease in donations related to the scandal, but Father John Kartje, the rector/president, is being proactive by addressing concerns forthrightly in talking with the seminary’s students and in responding to questions he is starting to get during speaking engagements.
Although the seminary has not sent a formal letter to donors and supporters in response to the scandal, this is not to say one will not be forthcoming, Father Kartje said. However, in the past, he said, he has tried to personally respond to individual inquiries about such matters, rather than deal with them in a form letter.
“Any faith relationship is based on current, in-the-moment communications,” he said, “but I can say broadly that I haven’t seen evidence that there’s some lack of faith in what we’re doing.”
Martin said he would advise Catholic organizations to both challenge and reassure their donors in such times.
“Challenge them to step up and not be quiet about abuse they’ve experienced,” he said. “We need to challenge them to look at their own lives to see if they’re living the kind of life they want the Church to live. We also need to encourage people that, even though this is bad, there have been other terrible times in the history of the Church. If you read sections from St. Catherine’s Dialogue, it’s like headlines from today. ... We need to remember this has happened before, but not minimize the seriousness and damage it is doing to souls. It’s leading people to hell and blocking the New Evangelization and soiling the face of Christ in the Catholic Church.”
Sokolowski added that he would like to see bishops reaffirm to Catholics that their money is going to needs for which funds have been and are being solicited and not to legal fees and other costs related to scandals.
In many dioceses, he said, much energy and expense are put into receiving donations, but not enough into thanking people, keeping them informed and demonstrating good stewardship of what has been given.
Franciscan Sister Georgette Lehmuth, the president and CEO of the National Catholic Development Conference (NCDC), which bills itself as the largest membership association of charitable religious fundraisers in the U.S., said that, in conversations with the group’s members about the McCarrick scandal, no one has talked specifically about the impact on donations. Rather, she said, their concerns have been those of prayerful support for the victims and the Catholic faith community.
A third concern, she said, is that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops address the issue of sexual abuse by members of the hierarchy and create appropriate accountability, just as they have done with priests, deacons and lay Church ministers. The NCDC membership includes religious communities of men and women, shrines, social-service agencies, schools, parishes, dioceses, seminaries and international relief agencies.
Father Herb Weber, pastor of St. John XXIII parish in Perrysburg, Ohio, which has been raising funds for a new church that is under construction, said he has noticed no change in support for the project since news of the latest scandal broke. “People are very concerned; but at the same time, their loyalties are so local that as long as their own parish seems to be functioning well, they will respond faithfully.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which conducts about 15 national appeals — including those for the Church in Latin America, Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and Retirement Fund for Religious — did not respond to a request for an interview about the impact of the scandal on its collections, nor did several other dioceses, organizations and institutions.
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.