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Spotlight Report

Parishes lag on payments

Lennon says workers could lose insurance

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/18/2003

More than one-fourth of the parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston are not paying the cost of benefits for their lay employees, leaving the church's multiple insurance trust funds $9 million short and causing the archdiocese to warn yesterday that parishes that don't contribute will have to lay off employees or trim their benefits.

Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the interim administrator of the archdiocese, told about 300 pastors yesterday that the trust funds that oversee benefits for employees of area Catholic institutions are prepared to terminate the coverage of church workers whose premiums are not paid. Lennon said such notices could go out as early as next month.

Speaking to the pastors in a Boston College dining room, Lennon told the pastors they have a moral responsibility to pay the cost of health insurance and other benefits for their parish workers, according to Lennon's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne. Reporters were not allowed to attend the meeting.

In a telephone interview later, the chancellor of the archdiocese, David W. Smith, said all of the trust funds are solvent, but that they will be endangered if parishes continue to fail to pay premiums. The archdiocese is no longer able to make up the gap.

''It is not, at this point, a crisis, and it's not going to become a crisis because Bishop Lennon is going to require parishes to act responsibly,'' Smith said. ''But it is a very serious problem. Will parish staffs shrink? Yes, they will.''

Nearly 100 Catholic institutions located within the Archdiocese of Boston provide benefits to about 9,000 workers through 10 separately administered, self-insured trust funds. The largest fund provides health insurance to lay church workers through a Tufts-administered plan.

About half of the employees work in the archdiocese's 360 parishes in such jobs as school teachers, religious educators, secretaries, custodians, and parish administrators. Parish workers are not unionized.

Smith said about 100 parishes are behind in their payments to various trust funds, including pension funds, long-term disability funds, and life insurance funds by a total of more than $9 million, of which $2.4 million is for employee health insurance.

Some parishes have regularly missed payments to the insurance trust funds for a variety of reasons, and in 2000, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, honoring a biblical exhortation to forgive debts during a Jubilee year, forgave $26 million owed by parishes, of which $13 million was owed to the benefits trust funds.

Law's action reduced the amount owed by parishes to trust funds to $1 million, but over the last three years the parishes have gone into the red by another $8 million. The church can no longer afford to make up the difference because of a financial strain caused in part by the down economy and in part by the impact of the clergy sex abuse crisis on giving to the church.

''For years, the archdiocese hadn't been all that vigilant, and there had been enough money,'' Coyne said at a news conference after the meeting. ''Now we don't have the available funds to make up the difference.''

Coyne said some parishes may have to consider sharing employees to save costs.

The church has not previously cut off benefits to employees, and is hoping to avoid it now. Smith said that if parishes continue to fail to pay insurance premiums, the trust funds will send notices to employees offering them an opportunity to pay the cost of their own benefits, before any action is taken to cancel coverage.

The archdiocese and many parishes have been far more generous than many private employers, providing health insurance coverage to part-time employees and, in many cases, paying 100 percent of the cost of health insurance premiums, Coyne said.

''Too many parishes have become too delinquent in their bills to the trusts,'' Smith said. ''This has been an ongoing problem, and it's accelerating. Bishop Lennon is saying that parishes have got to operate within their means.''

Lennon insisted on extraordinary secrecy for his gathering with pastors. He invited them to come to the meeting via a cryptic fax saying simply that ''it is an important meeting which I feel is necessary.''

Coyne had refused to describe to reporters the purpose of the meeting, and announced that reporters would be barred from the entire Boston College campus while the meeting was going on.

A few hours before the meeting, Coyne sent out an advisory declaring that the gathering would be to discuss ''the present pastoral and financial situation of the Archdiocese of Boston'' and was ''not about a new archbishop . . . not about a settlement . . . not about a Chapter 11 filing . . . [and] not about closing parishes.''

Lennon's remarks won generally positive reviews from priests, many of whom entered the meeting with skepticism.

''He was very clear, well-prepared, candid, and comprehensive,'' said the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, the president of the Boston Priests Forum. ''It was notable to me how easy the atmosphere was and how engaged people were. He was unthreatening and pastoral, and there was no tension in that room.''

''Lots of parishes are really struggling and find it difficult to pay their bills,'' Bullock said. ''But we have a moral responsibility, and a responsibility in justice, to make sure there is no danger to these parts of our responsibility. If we are having trouble paying bills, these bills should have priority.'' The Rev. Robert J. Bowers, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Charlestown, also praised Lennon.

''I give him a lot of credit for being very open and letting us know what's going on -- the hopeful part is that there is some openness about discussing it, and more of this open discussion would be a great idea,'' he said. ''This problem predates the crisis, but the solution is in the middle of it, so it's a tough situation. People are going to have to lose jobs.''

Lennon told the priests he sees hopeful signs in the progress of the Annual Catholic Appeal, which is the church's yearly fund drive, formerly called the Cardinal's Appeal. He said the archdiocese has raised $4.5 million toward a $9 million goal, and that it is running $500,000 ahead of where it was at this time last year, in the midst of the abuse crisis.

Smith said the number of donors is also up about 15 percent over last year.

Coyne said many parishes have also failed to pay an annual tax intended to support the bishop, called a cathedraticum, but that the archdiocese has not attempted to collect that tax over the last year because of the church crisis.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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