Audit: Federal dollars cushioned Catholic Church’s pandemic struggles in West Virginia

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Like other churches across the country, the West Virginia Catholic Church has struggled during the coronavirus pandemic to keep the doors open or continue its usual community support until it is bolstered by the Paycheck Protection Act from the federal government.

The Catholic Diocese of Wheeling withdrew $ 1,996,372 from the federal program to help businesses keep their workforce employed during the covid-19 crisis. Federal money also went towards rent for the diocese, utilities, and interest on mortgages and existing debt.

Marc Brennan

“Learning that religious organizations were eligible for the federal government’s salary protection program, the diocese requested and received this relief, not only for diocesan operations, but for most of its parishes and schools,” Mark Brennan , Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling. written in a letter accompanying a financial audit.

This federal financial relief was requested even as the church continued to hold millions of dollars in its own financial reserves, according to the audit.

The church has used federal money to keep employees on payroll and continue their health insurance even though facilities have been closed for weeks, according to the diocese’s explanation of its audit. Although PPP is a loan program, the diocese intends to request a loan forgiveness.

“There was no reason for our Church workers, who pay taxes, to lose their jobs and possibly their homes when the government made funds available specifically to keep people working,” he said. writes Brennan.

With an economic recovery now in its infancy, Brennan has concluded that the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling does not need to seek additional P3 assistance under the latest relief bill.

“Some Catholic parishes, schools and charities need this help, however, and the diocese will help those who qualify to apply,” he wrote.

FOLLOWING: Brennan, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Announces Restoration of Diocesan Council of Lay Members

Wheeling-Charleston Diocese made public a financial audit as well as additional information this morning.

This shows that the Catholic Diocese of West Virginia continues to grapple with the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the fallout from scandals surrounding former Bishop Michael Bransfield.

“The 2019-2020 fiscal year reminds me of the roller coasters I rode in my youth: a lot of ups and downs. wrote Brennan, who was installed as Bishop in late 2019.

The broader context of PPPs

Financial stress led the church to accept help from the federal government.

The role of the Paycheque Protection Program in strengthen the balance sheets of the church across the country was the subject of an in-depth review by The Associated Press released this week.

The AP investigation found that dioceses across the country were receiving aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while having more than $ 10 billion in cash, short-term investments. term or other funds available. Despite the general economic downturn, these assets have increased in many dioceses, AP concluded.

The nearly 200 dioceses across the country, where bishops and cardinals rule, and other Catholic institutions have received at least $ 3 billion from the Paycheck Protection Program, AP reported.

This may make the Roman Catholic Church the biggest beneficiary of the paycheck program, according to AP’s analysis. Data from the US Small Business Administration was released following a public lawsuit filed by news organizations. The more precise information allowed AP to conclude a more in-depth review after the federal agency shared only partial information for months.

Audit of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston notes that although the church’s goal was to draw only 5 percent a year from its financial reserves, the church had $ 205 million in total assets available from resources. such as money, mineral rights and other investments – especially securities – in 2020.

These reserves were down from $ 223 million the year before.

Effects of the pandemic on the finances of the W.Va.

In West Virginia, the church halted public masses last March, reopening them in late May with precautions such as restricting attendance.

“The pandemic has dramatically halted diocesan income, as well as that of parishes,” Brennan wrote, noting that the church’s charitable efforts continued to help record numbers of the unemployed and those in distress.

Financial stress spread to the church’s stock portfolio as well as its income from mineral rights such as oil and gas holdings. Meanwhile, Brennan wrote, struggling parishes and schools have turned to the diocese for support.

In response, the combined departments of the diocese, reduced staff through attrition, offered early retirement to eligible employees, and closed two pastoral centers permanently.

Brennan wrote that when the pandemic hit last March, he suspended the annual Catholic Sharing Appeal – which provides more support to parishes early in the fiscal year and most support to the diocese in the last quarter of exercise. Brennan wrote that he charged the diocese for the initial protective and sanitizing supplies needed to reopen the facility safely.

But without the Catholic Sharing Appeal, the diocese initially concluded that it could not give an additional $ 200,000 donation to Catholic charities. But, he wrote, “Catholic charities received assistance from the PPP, which mitigated the loss. “

The effects of the Bransfield scandals continue

As the year went on, the church continued to grapple with the fallout from scandals surrounding former Bishop Michael Bransfield.

Bransfield served as Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling from 2005 to 2018, when he retired. Following this, a church investigation examined several credible allegations of adult sexual harassment, as well as financial irregularities.

Results an internal church investigation found Bransfield had spent millions of diocesan dollars on chartered jets, lavish furnishings at his official residence and nearly 600 cash gifts to other clergy.

Verification shows that the Bishop’s Fund was dissolved and its remaining assets were turned over to the Diocese, which used them to purchase Wheeling Hospital’s stake in the diocesan real estate, resulting in a formal separation of the two entities .

The diocese sold the bishop’s former residence for $ 1.2 million and canceled the lease on its Wheeling nursing home. Bransfield had been ordered not to live in this retired diocese.

In addition to stipulating that the Bransfields accept a reduced retirement package, the church ordered him to reimburse $ 441,000 of the diocesan funds he had used for his personal expenses. This payment and the proceeds from the sale of the residence went into a restricted fund for victims of sexual abuse and harassment.

More generally, Brennan wrote that the church’s income supports its mission through teachers and priests, buildings, and programs such as youth retreats and community pantries.

“In love we will seek to use the financial resources at our disposal to do good for God’s people and those who cross our paths,” Brennan wrote.

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