Minnesota Clergy Abuse Reports Pose Financial Concerns

October 24, 2013

New questions about the way the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis handled allegations of clergy sexual misconduct are posing some financial concerns, including the potential for new legal expenses and a falloff in donations.

Minnesota Public Radio News reported some who track weekly church collections are worried media reports of how church leaders handled warnings about at least two priests could cause parishioners to give less.

Before these recent allegations came to light, the archdiocese was already concerned that a new law easing the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse would open the church up to more lawsuits – and legal expenses.

The archdiocese’s finances have been under heightened scrutiny in recent years, mostly due to the nearly $1 million it spent between 2010 and 2012 on a failed campaign to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

Church leaders typically issue a financial summary once a year but critics say it’s based on summaries, not complete data. The archdiocese’s summarized statement says it had $43 million in assets as of 2012.

“If I put my $10 in the basket, I don’t know what in the world is going to happen to it,” said Jack Ruhl, an accounting professor at Western Michigan University, who studies church finances. Ruhl called on Archbishop John Nienstedt to release a full set of audited documents rather than summaries.

Parishes are required to send the archdiocese 8 percent of collections, as well as money for employee health care costs and other debt. Church officials recently told priests 40 of the 188 parishes owe the chancery $21 million, the Rev. Michael Tegeder said. The Minneapolis-based priest believes parishioners are losing faith in Nienstedt and other leaders, and it could harm the parish’s bottom lines.

“I talked to a lot of people who say I don’t want to give any money to the archdiocese,” said Tegeder, who last fall called on Nienstedt to consider resigning over the failed gay marriage ban. “They’ll say, ‘We’ll give it to Catholic Charities or some other organization.’ That’s nice but we have to pay our staff too.”

A recent decision to suspend a possible $160 million, four-year capital campaign is a new sign of financial stress. Tegeder said it was scheduled to start next summer.

Meanwhile, former church employee Jennifer Haselberger said church leaders from across Minnesota met privately with bankruptcy attorneys earlier this year.

Temple University law professor Jonathan Lipson, who has studied the bankruptcy filings of nine dioceses nationwide, said it’s becoming more acceptable for a diocese to go into bankruptcy if they face lawsuits around clergy misconduct. Bankruptcy allows a diocese to settle with creditors.

Also this week, a pastor in North St. Paul said it’s time for a “fresh start,” and he questioned whether Nienstedt should continue in his post. The Star Tribune reported that the Rev. Bill Deziel used his Sunday bulletin at the Church of St. Peter to address the way leaders handled allegations of misconduct. He said he shares his parishioners’ frustration and called for a “do-over” of archdiocesan leadership.

An archdiocese spokesman says Nienstedt plans to address the issue Thursday in Catholic Spirit, the archdiocese’s newspaper.

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