OF ALL the organisations that serve America’s poor, few do more good work than the Catholic church: its schools and hospitals provide a lifeline for millions. Yet even taking these virtues into account, the finances of the Catholic church in America are an unholy mess. The sins involved in its book-keeping are not as vivid or grotesque as those on display in the various sexual-abuse cases that have cost the American church more than $3 billion so far; but the financial mismanagement and questionable business practices would have seen widespread resignations at the top of any other public institution.
The picture that emerges is not flattering. The church’s finances look poorly co-ordinated considering (or perhaps because of) their complexity. The management of money is often sloppy. And some parts of the church have indulged in ungainly financial contortions in some cases—it is alleged—both to divert funds away from uses intended by donors and to frustrate creditors with legitimate claims, including its own nuns and priests. The dioceses that have filed for bankruptcy may not be typical of the church as a whole. But given the overall lack of openness there is no way of knowing to what extent they are outliers.
The church is the largest single charitable organisation in the country. Catholic Charities USA, its main charity, and its subsidiaries employ over 65,000 paid staff and serve over 10m people. These organisations distributed $4.7 billion to the poor in 2010, of which 62% came from local, state and federal government agencies.
The American church may account for as much as 60% of the global institution’s wealth.