This editorial originally appeared in The Washington Post.
The breadth and depth of corruption in the Catholic Church seem boundless, and colored by the ongoing dysfunction arising from clergy sex abuse and the hierarchy’s inability to grapple with it. Some of the misdeeds and cover-ups have been facilitated by a law that exempts religious institutions and affiliated charitable entities from financial reporting that is required of other nonprofit organizations. Even as the Vatican, seeking to move beyond its protracted season of scandal, calls for a new era of transparency, the church’s finances in the United States remain opaque.
That apparent discrepancy between rhetoric and reality was highlighted by a stunning account in The Washington Post focusing on the opulent lifestyle, and extravagant palm-greasing, undertaken for years by now-disgraced former bishop of West Virginia Michael Bransfield. The story revealed that Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who oversaw an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Bransfield, whitewashed the resulting report to expunge the fact that he — along with 10 other of the most prominent and influential clerics in the United States and the Vatican — were paid thousands of dollars from what amounted to a slush fund controlled by the bishop.
You read that correctly: The archbishop, having received substantial monetary “gifts” from the bishop, had that fact scrubbed from the report that he himself supervised. And he scrubbed more famous names, including those of current and former cardinals in New York, Boston, Washington and the Vatican, who were showered with cash from the same source.
The fact that the slush fund, which dispensed $350,000, was controlled by the free-spending, large-living bishop of West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, is a self-evident irony. That the funds were lavished not just on cardinals but also on some of the young priests whom Bransfield is accused of abusing and molesting speaks to the conspiracy of silence at the heart of the church’s sex abuse scandal.
Bransfield has denied the allegations without addressing them. Lori explained that he scratched from the report his name and those of other senior clerics, because there is “no evidence” of reciprocity for the “gifts” they received from Bransfield. Maybe not; but Bransfield’s alleged sexual harassment appears to have gone on for decades, without any senior figure in the church taking action to stop it.
Other nonprofit organizations are required to file tax forms detailing their finances, called Form 990s, which are available to the public; the disclosure provides one check on abuse. Religious organizations are not required to file 990s. Payoffs that functioned as hush money to victims have been a feature of the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal, and those payments, like the “gifts” that Bransfield distributed so freely, have been enabled by the lack of transparent financial reporting requirements. If the Vatican cannot achieve real transparency by decree, Congress can and should consider doing so by legislation.