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When the coronavirus forced churches to close their doors and give up Sunday collections, the Roman Catholic diocese of Charlotte turned to the federal government’s signature small business relief program for more than $8m.
The diocese’s headquarters, churches and schools landed the help even though they had roughly $100m of their own cash and short-term investments available last spring, financial records show.
When the cash catastrophe church leaders feared didn’t materialize, those assets topped $110m by the summer.
“I am gratified to report the overall good financial health of the diocese despite the many difficulties presented by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Bishop Peter Jugis wrote in the diocese’s audited financial report released last fall.
As the pandemic began to unfold, scores of Catholic dioceses across the US received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while sitting on well over $10bn in cash, short-term investments or other available funds, an Associated Press investigation has found. Despite the economic downturn, these assets have grown in many dioceses.
Yet even with that financial safety net, the 112 dioceses that shared their financial statements, along with the churches and schools they oversee, collected at least $1.5bn in taxpayer-backed aid.
A majority of these dioceses reported enough money on hand to cover at least six months of operating expenses.
The financial resources of several dioceses rivaled or exceeded those available to publicly traded companies like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, whose early participation in the program triggered outrage.
Federal officials responded by emphasizing the money was intended for those who lacked the cushion that cash and other liquidity provide. Many corporations returned the funds.
Overall, the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses, where bishops and cardinals govern, and other Catholic institutions received at least $3bn.
That makes the Roman Catholic church perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the paycheck program, according to AP’s analysis of data the US Small Business Administration released following a public-records lawsuit by news organizations.
The agency for months had shared only partial information, making a more precise analysis impossible.
Already one of the largest federal aid efforts ever, the SBA reopened the Paycheck Protection Program last month with a new infusion of nearly $300bnn.
In making the announcement, the agency’s administrator at the time, Jovita Carranza, hailed the program for serving “as an economic lifeline to millions of small businesses”.
Church officials have said their employees were as worthy of help as workers at “Main Street” businesses.
But new financial statements several dozen dioceses have posted for 2020 show that their available resources remained robust or improved during the pandemic’s hard, early months, whether a diocese was big, small, urban, rural, east, west, north or south.
In Kentucky, funds available to the archdiocese of Louisville, its parishes and other organizations grew from at least $153m to $157m during the fiscal year that ended in June, but received at least $17m in paycheck money. “The Archdiocese’s operations have not been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak,” according to its financial statement.
In Illinois, the archdiocese of Chicago had more than $1bn in cash and investments as of May, while the faithful continued to donate “more than expected,” according to a review by the independent ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service.
Chicago’s parishes, schools and ministries accumulated at least $77m in paycheck protection funds.
Catholic entities amassed at least $3bn – roughly the same as the combined total of recipients from the other top five faiths.
Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Jewish faith-based recipients also totaled at least $3bn. Catholics account for about a fifth of the US religious population while members of Protestant and Jewish denominations are nearly half, according to the Pew Research Center.
Catholic institutions also received many times more than organizations such as the United Way, Goodwill Industries and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Overall, Catholic recipients got roughly twice as much as 40 of the largest, most well-known charities in America combined, AP found.
The Vatican referred questions the US conference of Catholic bishops, which said it does not speak on behalf of dioceses.
Bishops conference spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi said PPP was “designed to protect the jobs of Americans from all walks of life, regardless of whether they work for for-profit or nonprofit employers, faith-based or secular.”
One expert AP consulted was the Rev James Connell, an accountant for 15 years before joining the priesthood and becoming an administrator in the Milwaukee archdiocese.
Connell said AP’s findings convinced him that Catholic entities did not need government aid.
“Was it want or need?” Connell asked. A pastor in a western state, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told AP that he refused to apply even after diocesan officials repeatedly pressed him. When the pandemic hit, he used savings, trimmed expenses and told his diocese’s central finance office that he had no plans to seek the aid, he said.
One high-ranking official asked why he was “leaving free money on the table”.
The pastor said he felt a “sound moral conviction” that the money was meant more for shops and restaurants that, without it, might close forever.
And parishioners were so happy with new online masses, they boosted their contributions beyond 2019 levels.
“We didn’t need it,” the pastor said, “and intentionally wanted to leave the money for those small business owners who did”.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: US Catholic dioceses received $3bn in government aid while sitting on billions | Catholicism