DC Catholics Speak Loudly With Their Pocketbooks

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by Paul Murano  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  February 13, 2020   

Donations plunge in wake of sex abuse scandal

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WASHINGTON (ChurchMilitant.com) - Collections from the archdiocese of Washington's "Annual Appeal" are plummeting after almost two years of scandal involving clerical sex abuse and cover-up.  

The Annual Appeal is an yearly fundraiser that finances some archdiocesan programs. Owing largely to the well-documented sexual misconduct scandals that sparked what many Catholics have dubbed "the summer of shame," the appeal took a big hit this past year, taking in nearly one-third less money in 2019 than it did in 2018. 

The archdiocese of Washington, which includes the District of Columbia and its Maryland suburbs, took in $10,350,027 in its 2019 annual appeal, compared to the $14,192,188 it received in 2018. Before this sharp decline, the appeal took in around the same amount each year since 2013.  

The annual drive was called "the Cardinal's Appeal" until a year ago, when officials rebranded it "The Annual Appeal" to play down the image of laicized ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, disgraced cover-up prelate, Cdl. Donald Wuerl, and their surrounding clerics. 

The archdiocese of Boston did something similar after their public scandal in the early 2000s was spotlighted, going from the "Cardinal's Appeal" to the "Catholic Appeal."

Comparatively, the diocese of Arlington, bordering on the Washington archdiocese to the south, still calls its annual appeal "the Bishop's Appeal." With one-third fewer Catholics than her neighboring archdiocese to the north, the diocese of Arlington took in $17,202,000 in 2019, down from $18,400,000 in 2018 — but up from previous years. The diocese of Arlington has 453,000 Catholics in 70 parishes while the Washington archdiocese has 655,000 Catholics in 139 parishes.

Donations have fallen nationally since the revelation of the Church scandal.

Though national numbers are not available, experts say they hear anecdotally that donations have fallen nationally since the revelation of the Church scandal in Washington with former Cdl. Theodore McCarrick and Cdl. Donald Wuerl, which was quickly followed by the scandal in West Virginia and the grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailing extensive abuse and cover-ups from decades ago.

Demonstrate Local Impact

Unlike the first wave of clergy abuse scandals in the early 2000s that noticably affected donations nationally, experts say this abuse crisis is more localized. 

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Joseph Gillmer, archdiocesan executive director of development

Joseph Gillmer, executive director of development for the archdiocese of Washington, said that 2019 was the most challenging environment in the appeal's 50-year history.

"We need to continue to demonstrate the impact of contributions and earn the right to be worthy of the philanthropic support of the faithful," Gillmer wrote. "We must continue to be transparent, accountable and good stewards of charitable support. ... It is only through proactive, one-by-one engagement with the faithful that we will earn the trust necessary to be the recipient of future support."

Givers Target Donations Locally

The faithful will need proof of consistent transparency. Angie Boggs, 72, a retired hospital clinical ethicist, said she changed her giving patterns last year because she felt the Church was insufficiently transparent. She no longer gives to Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services — two major projects of the U.S. Catholic Church.

Instead, Boggs says she uses an online charity assessment tool to find groups that do similar work but have "really good transparency and a high percentage goes to programs." She had stopped giving to the Bishop's Appeal years earlier.

Knowing money is needed to serve the poor and disadvantaged and to pay the parish bills, Boggs continue to donate to her home parish but never gives cash and clearly specifies on her checks the purpose for which she wants her money to be used.

Younger Catholics aren't giving to the Church the way their parents and grandparents used to.

"When everything is behind closed doors, it's a black box. I feel morally I need to make sure I'm doing the best I can to make sure my money doesn't go to support things I'm against," she said.

Not Giving Up on the Church

John T. Butler, former head of development for the archdiocese of Washington, said "the issue around McCarrick was a big one. People felt strongly about that, and reacted strongly." However, he added that as a rule, younger Catholics aren't giving to the Church the way their parents and grandparents did.

Interestingly, Mass attendance has not gone down and other fundraising efforts, such as collections for retired priests, are actually doing better.

"I thought that would take a major hit (too), having the word 'priest' in there," Gillmer said.

"The appeal is down but other things are not, which tells me people have not given up on the Church's good works," he added.

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