The Catholic Church in the United States got at least $1.4 billion, and possibly as much as $3.5 billion, in federal government loans intended to help businesses meet payroll while employees are laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Associated Press reported. Some of that money went to dioceses that have sought bankruptcy protection from sexual abuse lawsuits, or have already paid hefty sums to settle such suits.
In early June, Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a $659 billion fund created to help small businesses struggling to meet payroll during the recession brought on by the pandemic. However, much of that money appears to have gone to faith-based organizations that promote religious beliefs, entities usually exempt from federal money via the Small Business Administration. However, the PPP allowed such groups, and other organizations, access to that money via forgivable loans.
Micah Schwartzman, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in constitutional issues and religion, is clear that he believes the federal government showed "a kind of structural favoritism" in bending the rules to allow faith-based organizations to get that money.
How much money the Catholic Church received is unclear. Based on records sourced by The Associated Press, at least $1.4 billion was given to various dioceses. However, those records do not list which entities received loans of less than $150,000, so the amount could be considerably higher.
Indeed, an analysis by the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference that at least 9,000 Catholic-affiliated entities got PPP money, more than three times the number The Associated Press was able to identify.
Some of that money went to local dioceses that have been embroiled in sexual abuse lawsuits. The exact number of such dioceses and how much money they received is unclear. However, The Associated Press was able to identify at least 40 dioceses that, between them, have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to settle sex-abuse lawsuits or have filed for bankruptcy protection. They were approved for at least $200 million between the 40 of them, although the number could be considerably higher.
For example, the Saint Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is a treatment facility for Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse, received between $350,000 to $1 million.
Similarly, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which had entered bankruptcy protection due to sex-abuse claims, sued the federal government for PPP money. The archdiocese prevailed in court, and was awarded $1 million.
Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, Pennsylvania, noted that some may be surprised and even angered that faith-based organizations received federal money, but he also noted that such organizations provide food, clothing and shelter and, by extension, employ people.
"The separation of church and state does not mean that those motivated by their faith have no place in the public square," he said.