BOSTON — The Boston Archdiocese's financial decisions could be under more political control depending on the outcome of just-introduced state legislation. Aired in a public committee hearing of the Massachusetts Legislature Aug. 10, the bill would force all churches to open their financial books to the state attorney general.

While supporters say the bill would “bring accountability and transparency,” opponents counter it is an infringement of religious liberty, aimed at the Catholic Church but affecting all religious groups.

At issue is a proposal to remove existing religious exemptions in state laws governing public charities, thus mandating financial reporting to the state.

“This bill is being referred to as merely a ‘reporting requirement,’ but it's much more than that,” Edward Saunders Jr. of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference said in an interview. “It opens the possibility of the attorney general second-guessing and possibly overturning any decision by any administrator of a religious organization.”

Saunders is executive director of the conference, the public policy office of the state's bishops. His written testimony noted that the attorney general could assume this power if he claimed that charitable donations were “misapplied” or there was a “breach of the public trust.”

“This is using legislation to mediate an internal religious dispute,” said opponent Laura Everett, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents 1700 Protestant and Orthodox churches. “It sets a dangerous precedent. Religious liberty is a real concern.”

The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Marion Walsh, D-Boston, who testified that she introduced it as a result of constituents’ frustration with archdiocesan officials over the closing of their parish, St. Susanna's in Dedham. She said that some of these constituents sat on boards of various non-religious charities. They knew that charities had to open their books.

Supposedly, they did not see why the books of the archdiocese could not be similarly inspected. They wanted access to the archdiocesan records because they did not understand why their parish, which was in good financial shape, had to be closed.

The closing of scores of churches in the archdiocese by Archbishop Sean O'Malley in the last year has generated heated debate and resulted in months-long occupations of some of the churches in question. This comes on the heals of the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Church and led to the resignation of Archbishop O'Malley's predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law.

And indeed, dozens of parishioners from throughout the state, wearing yellow ribbons and “Accountability Now” buttons, admitted that they wanted the bill to force bishops to explain the Church's real estate and other financial holdings.

Meanwhile, the Vatican has intervened in the church-closing process in the archdiocese, saying the financial settlement of certain closed parishes is not being done right (See story above).

Walsh said that a number of her vocal supporters came from Voice of the Faithful and the Council of Parishes, a coalition of parishioners from 15 churches slated for closing. Numerous proponents of the bill testified that they supported this legal route because they felt “stonewalled” in dealing with the “hierarchy.”

Churches or Charities?

However, state laws already prohibit “financial malfeasance,” countered C. Joseph Doyle of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts in written testimony. He asserted there is “no compelling state interest” in lawmakers inserting themselves in a religious dispute between the archdiocese and “various dissident groups.”

Siding with Walsh, Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin testified that state laws going back to 1897 give the Catholic Church unique legal status, one that has resulted in a “cloak of secrecy,” he said.

Walsh's argument was grounded in churches’ tax-exempt status as charities, she said. While the attorney general can regulate other charities, he cannot oversee the books of churches. “Our state law has unwittingly aided and abetted sexual abuse and the selling of Church property,” Walsh testified.

But, Everett asserted, churches should have special protection. “They should be free to order themselves, free from government intrusion. Saying this bill is simply about ‘charities’ obscures the fact that churches have special legal status protecting religious liberty because they are religious institutions, and not simply religiously-minded charities.”

“This is a blatantly anti-Catholic bill, but one that will affect all religions,” said Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a non-profit public policy organization. “The government shouldn't intrude as a watchdog. The wall of separation is there to prevent the government from interfering with the inner workings of churches.”

“It's very clear that the Catholic Church in Boston is under siege,” said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, in a telephone interview.

“I would question and fight every single action that is directed toward the Church in Boston by the city council and the legislature,” he said, referring to several recent political moves to bring pressure on Church officials.

“While I can understand people's anger and dismay, the point here is that the motives are suspect,” Donohue said. “This is more than a fishing expedition. This is the state telling the Church, ‘You didn't do a good job.’ Even though there are a lot of open wounds, that doesn't justify unjust behavior. You really have to be careful of crossing church-state lines.”

Gail Besse is based in Hull, Massachusetts.