Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Catholics keep on giving despite scandals

Donations are down in Boston, but service arms of local churches unaffected

By Jim Knippenberg jknippenberg@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The downturn in donations affecting some Catholic agencies in the wake of the ever-widening church sex abuse scandal has not hit Cincinnati, church and social services executives say. And they're pretty sure it never will.

        They say that, knowing that in Boston, epicenter of the scandal, donations to Catholic charities are down 10 percent from this time last year, and they will probably sink more before it's over.

        The apparent concern is that money given the church for its social service agencies will be used instead to fund sex abuse settlements.

        “That can't happen in Cincinnati,” says Brigid McLinden-Swartz, spokeswoman for Catholic Social Services, the archdiocese-wide umbrella which provides back-up services for individual charities. Its $4 million annual budget comes from United Way (45 percent) and an assortment of grants.

        It provides some emergency funding to local Catholic charities, but in most cases, individual charities raise their own funds.

        “Social services are clearly separate from the administrative branch (the side which pays out settlements), so funds can never cross over,” she says. “We're even governed by separate auditing and accounting systems. There's no way the administrative side can dip into the pot. I think people must understand that because we've not seen a negative impact.”

        Sister Jacqueline Kowalski, executive director of Seton Family Center, a facility offering mental health care and counseling to families with no insurance, has seen an upturn in giving this year. SFC's annual $100 a plate benefit April 22 had a 10 percent increase in attendance and a 25 percent increase in revenue over last year.

        “We operate under the umbrella of the Sisters of Charity Ministries, and I think people understand the work we do and the great need for it. There are always going to be people in need, and I think donors understand that. I don't believe they'll withhold help when so many need it,” she says.

Donors "perceptive'

        No, they won't, says Sister Joan Boberg, director of Catholic Social Services of Northern Kentucky, another umbrella agency, this one with a budget of $1.8 million. “I know it (the scandal) is on everyone's mind, and that people are terribly concerned, but I have seen no negative impact in terms of support.

        “I don't think people in our area would ever deny support. Donors are pretty perceptive and pretty discerning in seeing what we do, in seeing the great need for it and in showing their appreciation.”

        At the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, executive director Liz Carter describes fund-raising as a day-in, day-out proposition. Every day they collect furniture, clothes, cars and cash to fund a range of programs, including discount stores, work in individual parishes and social services out of its West End facility.

        “This isn't a big time of year for raising cash, so I can't say much for sure about the impact there. But this is a very busy time for material donations, and if there were any kind of downturn, we'd feel it immediately. But we haven't. Our donations are right on schedule.

        “The reason I think that's so is because people look at what's being done by the agencies and feel the work is important. And they also know the service agencies have nothing to do with the decisions that are causing all the problems right now.

        “The bottom line is, if people feel what they give has a positive effect they'll continue giving.”

        That has also been the experience of Vince Chase, executive director of the Springfield branch of the church-affiliated Second Harvest. The agency has a $1.2 million annual budget for services and collects about $4 million in food for its free stores in Clark, Logan and Champaign counties.

        “It's obvious the church has made some mistakes along the way, but it's not affecting us in any way that I can see. And because we're out there collecting food and supplies every day, I think I'd know quickly if there was a downturn.

        “In soliciting corporations for food, we've not heard a word about it. In soliciting them for cash, something we do face-to-face, we've also not heard a negative word. We have even heard a few words of sympathy.”

First golf outing

        For the past three months, Mr. Chase has been working on Harvest's first golf outing, a major fund-raiser scheduled for June 27. He has nothing from previous years to compare it to, but is encouraged that the event already has 22 sponsors (donors who underwrite expenses) and 128 golfers.

        “Again, we had a lot of face-to-face meetings, and I know everyone's aware of the scandal, but they aren't withholding.

        “I guess the thing that worries me about all this,” Mr. Chase says, “is the customer service angle. The people who are mad about the scandal and never tell us, but tell six other people to withhold donations.”

        But that doesn't appear to be happening, says Shelley Borysiewicz manager of media relations for the National Association of Catholic Charities in Alexandria, Va. The umbrella agency provides support, services and some funding for 1,600 member agencies and 160 dioceses and archdioceses.

        “Honestly, I don't see it happening,” she says. “Outside of Boston, we've seen no measurable impact. I think that's because donors still recognize that scandal or not, the poor are still poor, the hungry are still hungry, the homeless still need shelter.

        “Take Pittsburgh. They just set a record with their annual fund-raiser.”

        That was May 17, an annual black tie dinner thrown by Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh. It made more than $413,000, breaking the record set by 2000's dinner.

        “Everybody is asking if we've felt an impact, but the answer is no,” Sister Pat Cairns, executive director, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

        “Things like that give you great hope,” Ms. Borysiewicz says.

Memorial donations

        Gene Johnson, assistant executive director of Catholic Social Services here, is also hopeful. “Boston, I know, is having major problems, but we aren't. Absolutely no negative effects that I can see.

        “We do have one special circumstance, though. Our executive director of 40 years, Ray Egan, died in March, and many people are making donations in his memory.”

        Both Mr. Johnson and Archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco cite the annual Archbishop's Fund Drive as an example of the lack of negative impact.

        “A lot of parishes haven't reported in yet, but we're already at 89 percent of the goal and the drive goes until December,” Mr. Andriacco said. In addition, he says three of the archdiocese's 11 deaneries (geographical groupings of several parishes) have exceeded their goals.

Collection-plate factor

        The biggest unknown is the collection plate. “It's too early to get a handle on that,” Mr. Andriacco says. “The individual parishes don't report that to us regularly, so I don't think there's a way to find anything representative of the entire archdiocese.

        “The parishes pay the archdiocese an assessment or a percentage of collections, but that process happens later in the year, so we don't even have a handle on that.”

        The important thing to remember, says Ms. McLinden-Swartz, is that people are not withholding donations as a way to voice disapproval of church policies, and she hopes they never do.

        “With the slowed economy, more and more layoffs and rising unemployment, there will be an increased need for social services — counseling, support, resources, help with stress, anger and depression, indeed for all of the services, not just handouts and food banks. It is critical for people not to withhold their support.”


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