|Outrage from Catholics causes bill to be shelved|
|Tuesday, March 10, 2009|
After outrage from area Catholics against a proposed state law that would strip bishops and parish pastors of their financial authority, a state Senate bill was withdrawn from consideration Tuesday.
The bill came in the wake of financial scandals involving Catholic priests in Greenwich and Darien. Under the proposed legislation, a board of elected laypersons would be set up to handle parish finances while bishops and priests would oversee “matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices.” Now the bill will not be heard this session and a scheduled public hearing of the full Legislature has been canceled.
Bishop William E. Lori, head of the Bridgeport diocese, spoke out this week against the bill and there was outcry from throughout the Catholic community in the state. In an official statement regarding the proposed bill, the diocese said the bill “...is a thinly-veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage.”
The diocese also referred to the bill as “irrational, unlawful and bigoted.”
In response to e-mailed questions, Bishop Lori said that although this current legislation is aimed at the Roman Catholic Church, other denominations should fear the same.
“Every denomination should fear the wide-ranging implications of this proposed bill. While it is directed unfairly at the Roman Catholic Church, all churches could face a loss of religious liberty which is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution,” he wrote.
“It is blatantly unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment,” he added. “The guarantee of religious freedom in the U.S. Constitution applies not only to the private beliefs of individuals but also protects the autonomy of organized churches — all churches.”
Recent scandals have given the diocese a bit of a financial black eye. Two financial reviews at St. Michael the Archangel Parish found that former pastor Michael Moynihan stole $400,000 from the church to keep for himself and to make payments to his personal credit cards. Last February, Mr. Moynihan, who was at St. Michael’s from 1992 until 2006, was defrocked after it was discovered he was in a relationship with another man.
The same year the diocese’s financial review uncovered Mr. Moynihan’s two unauthorized accounts, Darien priest Michael Jude Fay pleaded guilty to stealing more than $1 million from his parish.
Monsignor Frank Wissel, pastor of St. Mary Parish on Greenwich Avenue told the Post Tuesday he was happy to see the bill dead for at least this legislative session, citing the outpouring against it not only from Catholics around the state but also from people of other religions who fear they might be next.
“These kinds of attacks against us are nothing new,” Msgr. Wissel said. “The Catholic Church has been criticized for many things over the years and these kinds of attacks are because of our stances on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. There’s no question in my mind.”
Msgr. Wissel said he isn’t ignoring scandals involving Mr. Moynihan and Mr. Fay, calling them “embarrassing,” but pointed out their behavior wasn’t indicative of Catholics as a whole.
“The church is attacked because we have a certain set of ethics,” Msgr. Wissel said. “We’re not perfect but certainly the failings that have been shown can be attributed to the human condition. This is not a problem that exists across the board.”
Originally it was thought the bill was being written by state Sen. Andrew McDonald (D-27) and state Rep. Mike Lawlor (D-99), co-chairmen of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee. But on Monday, they released a statement that they were not advocating for the bill and were simply introducing it as part of a request for a hearing from constituents.
“It has been incorrectly characterized that this legislation originated from the two of us as an attack on the church and freedom of religion. That is not the truth, and the facts do not support such a claim,” the statement said.
Mr. McDonald told Hersam Acorn Newspapers Tuesday he had not written the bill.
“A number of parishioners from lower Fairfield County asked the judiciary committee to consider this proposal, including Greenwich attorney Tom Gallagher and Fairfield University professor Paul Lakeland, who has been writing on this subject for several years now,” Mr. McDonald said.
Mr. McDonald said parishioners who suggested the bill are “victims of embezzlement” who are seeking to have “a greater say in the administrative and financial functions of the church.”
This isn’t the first time Mr. Gallagher has asked for a hearing to consider this.
Former state Rep. Claudia “Dolly” Powers told the Post Tuesday she recalled working on “much narrower” legislation last year at the behest of Mr. Gallagher, one of her constituents in the 151st District. Ms. Powers said she doesn’t remember specific language used, except that it was “literally one line” and that it was never raised by the Legislature.
Ms. Powers said she filled out what it is known as a proposed bill form with the one line and it was submitted to the Legislative Commissioner’s Office. She said she can’t recall which committee the form was then sent to, but said it died there and was never brought up again.
“I remember being told about this and thinking, ‘Wow, let’s see if we can narrow it a little bit,’” Ms. Powers said, recalling that she wanted to check with attorneys to make sure any legislation did not violate laws separating church from state.
When asked about the new proposed legislation, Ms. Powers, who is no longer in office, said she didn’t want to comment.
Mr. Gallagher could not be reached for comment.
Despite the bill being taken out of consideration, state Senate and House Republicans are going forward with their own hearing on it, scheduled for noon tomorrow in room 2C of the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. Sign-up for the hearing begins at 9:30.
Also, a rally against the bill, organized by the Catholic Church, was scheduled for outside the Capitol on Wednesday; as of press time, it was still being held.
In another statement released Tuesday, Mr. McDonald and Mr. Lawlor said they don’t want to consider any changes to the laws governing Roman Catholic corporations until it is clear whether the state’s existing laws are constitutional. They said the Legislature’s public hearing was canceled at the request of those advocating for the bill. They said they plan to check with Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a Greenwich resident, for his opinion on the constitutionality of the existing law, which sets different rules for five named religions separately.