The Scandal of Financial Abuse in the Church
The Catholic Church has been battered in recent days about abuses involving sexual misconduct of the clergy. Although this has been the primary source of news about the Church, it also raises questions about other sorts of abuses that may exist.
An interesting story has appeared in a range of prominent Catholic and secular media outlets indicating that U.S. Catholic business leaders were placing an intended donation to the Vatican in escrow while seeking clarification on the use of the money amidst the current scandals. The business leaders are members of Legatus which claims to comprise “Ambassadors for Christ in the marketplace.” With roughly 5,000 members, Legatus is a formidable financial organization. What makes the story particularly interesting for Parishioners for Justice and other Catholics interested in promoting justice in the Church is a statement dating to the early 1990’s by now-deceased Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua who called Legatus “the most influential lay organization in the Church.” Cardinal Bevilacqua’s name appears prominently and unfavorably in the clergy abuse report of the Pennsylvania grand jury. What is disturbing is the fact that this Church leader would identify an organization as being the most influential in the Church when the source of its influence is the way it uses its considerable resources. Legatus is to be commended for its generosity toward the Church and for its present effort to make sure it contributions are used well. What is troublesome is that the Church would correlate influence with wealth.
In the third century, when the Church was under attack by Roman authorities, Lawrence was ordered to turn over the riches of the Church to the prefect. When he presented himself to the prefect, he brought with him the indigent, the blind, the suffering – indeed the poor – and declared that these were the treasure of the Church. In the eighteen centuries since, the Church seems to have adopted a different view. It still states a preference for the poor; but the actions of many bishops reveal an actual preference for the wealthy and for their influence. This hypocrisy requires that a light of truth be shone on it.
The social teachings of the Church point to the “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.” Within this option, the Church declares its support for the solidarity of the poor in presenting “their own needs and rights in the face of the inefficiency or corruption of public authorities” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis). This preferential option might suggest that the poor and the needs of the poor should be far more influential in driving the social agenda of the Church than would be the agenda of the rich. Yet, as noted above, the statement has been made that the most influential lay organization in the Church is a wealthy one.
The Church has provided many writings and proclamations pertaining to the sexual behavior of the laity. Issues such as sex before marriage, the definition of marriage, divorce and remarriage, and participation in the life of the Church for those perceived to have shortcomings in any of these areas receive almost overbearing attention. At the same time, failures within the Church hierarchy to adhere to common decency regarding sexual matters have been suppressed until the outcry for justice has become overwhelming. The bishops seem to make bold proclamations and condemn those who are unable to live up to the standards they proclaim while at the same time they suppress acknowledgement of their own failings as a privilege of the clerical state. The hypocrisy is shameful, but blatant and undeniable.
This same hypocrisy may be evident in the stated preference for the poor accompanied by a comparison of the influence of the poor with the influence of the wealthy. We do not advocate against any individual of faith and good will having influence in the Church. However, when the influence is present because it has been bought, we are facing a serious hypocritical violation of Catholic social teaching. While Legatus tries to ensure that its donations to the Church are well-spent in support of the faithful and in support of the needs of the Church, other groups with significant means try to use their resources as a basis for manipulating Church leaders to act on behalf of their personal and private agendas.
The case of Fr. Christopher Senk is an example of the use of wealth to influence the Church. The Knott Foundation was begun in Baltimore in 1977 with resources earned by Henry J. Knott, Sr., from his work as a developer. The Knott Foundation is run today by the descendants of Mr. Knott. This foundation has provided grants to many Catholic activities, particularly in support of Catholic activities, schools, and organizations in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Through the generosity of the foundation, it has become an essential element of the financial operations of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and has thus gained influence. When individuals who run the foundation learned that one of their family members, in her personal generosity to many individuals, had provided some funds and a bequest to Fr. Senk, they wanted those funds for themselves, for their personal use, despite the wishes of their relative.
Members of this family then conspired with the Archbishop of Baltimore and with Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice to attack Fr. Senk. For two years, Bishop Dewane, in collaboration with the Knott family, had Fr. Senk investigated for any inappropriate exploitation of the Knott family member. In violation of Canon law, Bishop Dewane did not inform Fr. Senk of any charges or investigation. He preferred to conspire with the wealthy and influential Knott family rather than honor his commitments as a bishop. When the investigation failed to provide any evidence against Fr. Senk, who was declared to be innocent by the county sheriff, Bishop Dewane placed Fr. Senk on leave and, with further urging from the wealthy Knotts, sought to find some reason that he could not only sanction Fr. Senk but have him dismissed from the clerical state.
Although the Knott family has direct telephone access to Bishop Dewane, members of St. Isabel parish, where Fr. Senk is pastor, and of Parishioners for Justice, who seek justice for Fr. Senk, are essentially shunned by Bishop Dewane. Letters to him from faithful Catholics go unanswered; pleas on behalf of those wishing to support the life of the parish are unheeded. In the almost two years since Fr. Senk was placed on leave, Bishop Dewane has hidden from the people he is supposed to serve while remaining in close communication with the Knotts. No one would claim that Parishioners for Justice is composed of poor people. Nevertheless, the fact that the resources of the individuals comprising this organization are used to defend Fr. Senk rather than support the irregular activities of the Bishop of the Diocese of Venice relegates them to a status without any influence. In his actions, Bishop Dewane declares that those who are wealthy and who share that wealth with him are the most influential members of the laity.
Members of Parishioners for Justice know Fr. Christopher Senk well. They have witnessed his care for all members of the parish, including the member of the Knott family. Members of Parishioners for Justice know that Fr. Senk has not violated his priestly vows and that he is innocent of the charges that Bishop Dewane, in collusion with the Knotts, has manufactured. The case is now in Rome for adjudication. Fr. Senk’s innocence is not open to debate. Any decision from Rome against Fr. Senk will simply be a statement that wealth makes one powerful and influential in the Church. We can hope that such a decision will not be made, a decision that would display yet another element of hypocrisy in the Church.
Fr. Senk’s vocation is a treasure of the Church. He is brought before the prefects of Rome as were the treasures centuries ago. The act of Lawrence in identifying those poor as treasures brought anger and his death. The ruling prefects of that time sought wealth as the defining resource for displaying their powers and justifying their actions. May the bishops and Congregations in Rome act with a different mindset so that Fr. Senk’s priesthood will not be a victim of the greed and influence of the corrupt wealthy.