One of the major tasks in the life and ministry of a bishop is to provide “holy order” in the life of the local Church. A portion of a bishop’s pastoral ministry involves the care and oversight of the Church’s temporal goods and resources. This ministry is carried out in collaboration with the pastors of the Church and in consultation with lay leaders skilled and experienced in these matters. The Church’s resources are ordered to carry out our life of worship, our works of charity and our wide-ranging apostolates.
Since arriving in the diocese nine months ago, I have become aware of our diocese’s blessings and strengths, along with some of our challenges and limitations. In this column I want to direct your attention to both the good news, as well as the difficulties we must face together. In a spirit of prayer and candor I offer you, the people of the Diocese of Helena, the following information and reflections.
Presently the “bottom line” in the Diocese of Helena reveals an operating deficit. I will address reasons for that deficit and some of the discussions and plans for returning the diocese to a sound financial state.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2004, we acquired a nearly $2 million responsibility for settlements related to clergy sexual abuse, events which happened in the 1960s. Our unfunded future liabilities (such as priests’ post-retirement benefits) increased by over $400,000. The current operations of the diocese showed a deficit of nearly $691,000, and we anticipate a deficit of approximately $300,000 in the current fiscal year. At the same time, we did not realize our DOP goal.
Obviously this deficit situation cannot continue. We must return to a sound financial footing. We know that it is not possible to return to fiscal health without a sound diagnosis and a good treatment plan.
Even though the current picture is not what we would like it to be, I am convinced that together we can work to resolve our financial challenges so we can continue our mission to spread the Gospel throughout the Diocese of Helena.
History of the Situation
Several major factors contributed to the current financial picture.
During past years, the diocese began planning for a major capital campaign to bolster the finances available for the pastoral needs of the Church in the Diocese of Helena. Planning for the campaign, however, was interrupted in 1997 when Bishop Alexander Brunett was transferred to the Archdiocese of Seattle. Planning for the campaign resumed after Bishop Robert Morlino had been in Helena for a time.
In light of the anticipated increase in available funding and with the desire to enhance its pastoral outreach, the diocese entered into several financial commitments, including hiring of personnel. Then in 2003, Bishop Morlino was transferred to the Diocese of Madison, so the capital campaign once again was thwarted. Yet, the financial commitments remained.
Insurance paid approximately $1.4 million for early sexual abuse claims. During the past 15 years, the diocese paid nearly $6 million for abuse-related settlements involving claims that dated back as early as the mid-1950s. Over the years, the diocese has provided counseling and other direct assistance for victims of sexual abuse, expending nearly $120,000 for this purpose in the last seven years. We take seriously our responsibility to offer pastoral care and outreach for those injured by the actions of a few priests, and we will continue this healing ministry as long as necessary.
It is important to note that the diocese used no funds from the Diocesan Offertory Program or contributions to a specific parish, program or restricted account, to fulfill these claims. Nonetheless, the impact of clergy abuse settlements has had an enormous impact on the overall diocesan financial picture. In short, the interest which these monies would have provided is not available. Consequently, our ability to fund the offices and programs of the diocese has been seriously diminished.
Another aspect of our financial picture is that payments due for building projects are not coming into the Deposit and Loan fund as anticipated. Since the Deposit and Loan fund operates by accepting money for deposit and loaning it to parishes and institutions involved in a building project, this lag in timely payments has caused cash-flow difficulties. The diocese is searching for funds to balance what is loaned and not yet repaid, with what parishes desire to spend on their very worthwhile building projects.
Over the past few years we have not realized our Diocesan Offertory Program goal. This reduced income has hurt our ability to fund a wide variety of pastoral activities.
The drop in the stock market after the 9-11 crisis and other factors causing general economic uncertainty impacted the diocese much the same as it did our families and parishes. The decrease in our investment income, the need to liquidate some of our investments, coupled with the reduction in interest rates, has made it increasingly difficult to meet our current operating needs. And, as also is the case for our parishes and schools, the diocesan budget suffers because of increases in the prices of such items as utilities, gasoline and medical insurance.
The Present Plan
The Foundation for the Diocese of Helena (formerly Western Montana Catholic Foundation) has loaned the Deposit and Loan fund $1.4 million to assist our cash flow needs and allow current building projects to proceed. As parishes repay their loans, the Deposit and Loan fund will make its monthly payments to the Foundation. We are very grateful to the Foundation for their willingness to assist the diocese. It is a sign that all of us are working together for the good of the Church and investing in a healthy future.
The Diocesan Finance Council is working with my staff to ensure that the diocese returns to sound financial footing. We have taken several important steps already, and others are planned so that the diocese moves closer to a balanced budget in this fiscal year; and definitely for the year beginning July 1, 2005.
We are considering securing a major collateralized line of credit or a loan to carry us through the upcoming fiscal years.
We have not replaced staff members who have taken other employment. For example, there is one less position at the Montana Catholic and one less in the Diocesan Pastoral Office, the position of Diocesan Youth Minister is being covered through the wonderful assistance of various youth ministers from throughout the diocese, and the Judicial Vicar has taken over the responsibilities of the Chancellor. Consequently we now have six fewer employees, a fact that will save nearly $200,000 in the present fiscal year and nearly $300,000 in the year beginning July 1, 2005. At this point, any further reduction of staff would result in the termination of services vital to the diocesan Church – something we wish to avoid if at all possible.
The diocesan staff members have been asked to identify ways to save. Regretfully, we anticipate that beginning in July 2005 there will be no increase in salary for those who work on my staff. We are examining our financial commitments to organizations external to the diocese and anticipate reducing travel to workshops and meetings outside the Diocese. We are looking at ways to address the skyrocketing medical insurance costs which affect us all.
I have asked a small group of consultors to assist us on a pro bono basis in strengthening the diocesan financial infrastructure. For example, they are reviewing our present accounting software, and will make recommendations about our standard operating procedures and preparation for timely independent audits.
I met with the College of Consultors and the Presbyteral Council about these matters, and discussed options with all the priests on March 15. Since we are all a diocesan Church, an extended family of sorts, we will count on the parishes to assist in various ways until the diocesan financial situation returns to a stable base. Priest Consultors and pastors suggested a variety of things, including: encourage parishes to make sure all money which should be on deposit is with the Deposit and Loan fund, raise the tax that parishes contribute for the Bishop’s pastoral ministry, and charge fees for some of the services provided.
There is a significant way that people in the diocese can assist. When the Diocesan Offertory Program campaign begins in May of 2005, the goal will be $1.6 million, a recommendation generated by the Diocesan Stewardship Council and confirmed by the Diocesan Finance Council and Presbyteral Council. Funds raised support only the programs listed in the DOP brochure: religious formation, the mission in Guatemala, some national collections, the pastoral ministry of the Bishop, among many others (the accompanying chart outlines the use of DOP 2002 and 2003 funds). In an effort to restore the diocese to financial health, I am asking our people to increase their pledge by at least 10 percent, and encouraging those who currently do not contribute to DOP to do so.
It would be a wonderful manifestation of our desire to work together if we could come closer to meeting the current-year DOP goal in the few weeks remaining in this year’s campaign! At last report, about 92 percent of the $1.47 million goal has been received or pledged.
Planning for the Future
While wanting to address the challenges which have come to us from the past, I do not want to lose sight of the tremendous sense of enthusiasm and shared responsibility I have experienced since arriving in the Diocese of Helena.
While wanting to create fiscal transparency and responsibility, I also want to move into the future with a spirit of confidence and optimism.
I hope to convene a Diocesan Pastoral Council later on in the year to help create a thoughtful and widely accepted pastoral plan and priorities for the Diocese of Helena.
We are seeking independent funding for a pastoral planner to help make this hope become a reality. The Diocese of Helena has a long and stellar history of actively engaging the clergy and laity together as we live out our common call to holiness.
On a personal note, I have found this aspect of diocesan life sometimes daunting, if not overwhelming. There is a beautiful line in the Church’s Dogmatic Constitution which remains both a source of consolation, as well as a constant north star. Pastors know “that they themselves were not meant by Christ to shoulder alone the entire saving mission of the Church toward the world.” From my vantage it is that spirit of shared responsibility, mutuality and collegiality that will carry us into the future with confidence. I will continue to rely heavily on the wisdom and counsel of our clergy and religious, and utilize the acumen and experience of lay leaders, along with the generosity and prayerful support of our people, as we address together these common concerns with one heart.
Even as I bring the diocesan financial picture to your attention, I am keenly aware that our parishes, families and communities also face their own challenges. Heartfelt gratitude to each of you for your understanding, wisdom, assistance and warm welcome to me as your Shepherd. I am confident that, by working together, our path will be illuminated by Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 21, No. 3, March 18, 2005.