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JOAN VENNOCHI

Opening the church's books

FOR TOO MANY years, the Catholic Church has had its way with Massachusetts politicians.

Finally, some politicians are showing spine. They are standing up for churchgoers instead of the church, via a legislative proposal that calls for unprecedented financial transparency from churches and other religious organizations.

Six states require religious institutions to disclose some financial information in annual or biannual reports. The proposed Bay State bill is more comprehensive and would make the Commonwealth a national model when it comes to financial disclosure requirements. That is one reason the Catholic Church and other religious groups are fighting to kill it.

But the powerful institutional opposition is running up against another force -- the anger, sadness, and frustration of average Catholics who are watching the Boston archdiocese shut down parishes and schools with little explanation as to why or where the financial proceeds are going.

Trying to placate the flock and derail the legislation, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley recently pledged to disclose some financial information voluntarily. But the bill's sponsors are not backing down. They say they simply don't trust the church to reveal all it should. Secretary of State William F. Galvin calls O'Malley's proposal ''a feeble effort to disclose after years of nondisclosure and outright deceit."

It is a sign of unhappy times for the Boston archdiocese that the most passionate advocates of financial disclosure are Catholics who dominate the state's political elite. The bill's chief sponsor is Senator Marian Walsh of West Roxbury, a lifelong Catholic and graduate of Harvard's Divinity School. There are 39 co-sponsors, including Galvin; former lieutenant governor Thomas P. O'Neill III is another strong supporter of the disclosure legislation.

Currently, charities in Massachusetts -- with the exception of churches and other religious organizations -- must provide annual reports of gross revenues, expenses, fund balances, top salaries, and investments to the attorney general. The legislation would require churches and religious organizations to file the same information required from 30,000 charities. There should be no distinction, advocates argue, between the Little League selling candy to pay for uniforms, a televangelist soliciting money, and the Boston archdiocese.

The legislation would also require each charity in the state, religious or secular, to list each parcel of real property it owns as part of this report. This provision is particularly important, said Galvin, who describes ''a massive liquidation of real estate . . . liquidation without accountability" by the Boston archdiocese in the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. ''Over $200 million in real estate has been sold since Archbishop O'Malley arrived," said Galvin. ''There has been no explanation offered as to where the money is going. We wouldn't tolerate that from the United Way."

With the legislative session drawing to a close, will Senate and House leaders allow a vote on the proposal? ''The time is now. The matter is ripe," said Walsh, a dogged advocate who believes that in the Senate, ''We have the votes."

Behind the scenes, Senate President Robert Travaglini is showing true leadership and political courage, by assuring senators the matter will be taken up this week.The picture is less clear in the House; Walsh, Galvin, and O'Neill recently appealed personally to House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.

This proposal is not punitive or vengeful. It is fueled by a rather sad conclusion: that a law is needed to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding the finances of the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. With the Catholic Church, the impetus comes from ordinary churchgoers. They are seeking help to figure out where the money they put in collection plates ends up and why it isn't enough to keep a parish or parochial school up and running.

As is often the case on Beacon Hill, this story is about the push between power, politics, and doing the right thing. This time, will the power be with the people or with the institution that let them down? Will church leaders be allowed to dodge accountability to the people whose money they collect? It is fascinating that after all that happened in the Boston archdiocese, the church still believes it has the right to decide what information, financial or otherwise, it will give out.

It is a positive sign that Massachusetts politicians are finally willing to stare down the institution and speak up for the people. That is not government encroaching on religion. That is true separation of church and state.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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