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Catholic giving wavers slightly

The growing diocese was buffeted by a year of bad publicity and a sour economy.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2002

Largo resident Bill McKeown was troubled last spring.

A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg had received $100,000 in severance after accusing Bishop Robert Lynch of sexual harassment.

McKeown's pastor, the Rev. Richard Allen, had suddenly left the ministry amid revelations that he had molested a youth years ago. And worse, McKeown said, neither the bishop nor any of his personal representatives visited St. Matthew Catholic Church to console parishioners.

So McKeown and his wife, Barbara, altered their financial support of the church. They had already sent in the first part of a $4,000 pledge toward a capital construction campaign overseen by the bishop. After the turmoil, they redirected the balance of their pledge to St. Leo University in Dade City, where Bill McKeown went to school in the 1950s.

By using their wallets to communicate displeasure, the McKeowns joined legions of American Catholics who changed their giving patterns this year because of priestly sex scandals.

A Gallup survey in December revealed that 40 percent of the nation's Catholics said they were less likely to donate to their church. Particularly hard hit were areas such as Boston, where abusive priests were shuffled around for decades.

In the Tampa Bay area, donations held relatively steady or, perhaps, slipped slightly in 2002, finance officer Paul Ward said.

The church's fiscal year ends in June, which muddles calendar-year comparisons. And a sour economy may have affected donations more than bad publicity did. But all in all, "we are cautiously optimistic," Ward said this month.

With about 350,000 registered members in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties, the Diocese of St. Petersburg raised about $52-million in week-to-week collections in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2002, almost exactly as much as the previous year.

Included within that time frame were the months of January through May 2002, when the onslaught of shocking news first broke into the public consciousness, both nationally and locally.

Ordinarily, a break-even year would be a bad sign, Ward said, because the growing diocese usually generates a 4 to 8 percent increase.

On the other hand, collections often dwindle when the stock market plummets or when the economy turns sluggish, he said. So it's hard to tell whether bad publicity dampened 2002 donations or Enron and terrorists did.

Ward said he couldn't make complete comparisons after June 30, 2002, because the church isn't scheduled to tally up its collections until next June. At the request of the St. Petersburg Times, however, he sampled 20 parishes at random, comparing the July-through-September quarter of 2002 to the same quarter in 2001.

About half of those parishes reported a drop in donations, Ward said. About one-fourth reported an increase, and one-fourth reported no change.

"In terms of total aggregate dollars for all parishes, I suspect that the (weekly) income is down. My gut feel is that such percentage would be 5 percent or less."

At St. Ceclia Catholic Church in Clearwater, the offertory is "probably up from last year," said bookkeeper Peggy Rhodes. A few parishioners may have held back, she said, "But I think most everybody understands that a lot of what's been in the news has taken place elsewhere. It's just something we'll have to deal with."

Another measure of church giving is "non-recurring" income, including donations to parish building funds, special one-time gifts and bequests from estates. Through June 2002, that income totaled about $20-million, slightly higher than the year before, Ward said.

Perhaps the most visible target for dissatisfied parishioners was Our Journey of Faith, a five-year capital campaign promoted by Bishop Lynch. It is designed to fund renovations at Catholic high schools, improve medical and retirement programs for priests and underwrite Catholic Charities.

Its top priority, a new Bishop McLaughlin High School in Pasco County, came under scrutiny in May, when the Times reported that Lynch had awarded a no-bid construction management contract to a personal friend.

By then, the capital campaign had exceeded its pledge goal of $60-million by $3-million. Some parishioners, reacting to publicity, said they would withhold payment or change their pledges to other Catholic charities.

McKeown, who redirected his pledge to St. Leo, said he was ultimately satisfied by a church consultant's review of the Bishop McLaughlin contract, but still planned to send his money to his alma mater.

Half of the donation will support renovation of the St. Leo abbey; the other half will support a scholarship fund named for McKeown's old headmaster.

"I'm not anti-Bishop Lynch," McKeown said recently. "It's just that with all the things that happened in a few short weeks, I said, 'This is for St. Leo.' I learned more from my headmaster than I did from my father. They are closer to me."

Ward, the finance chief, said $750,000 to $900,000 in pledges have been formally withdrawn from the capital campaign. At least that's from parishioners who announced their change in plans. Pledges are collected over five years. "It could be that people are just not going to pay their pledges and are not going to tell us about it," he said. "This campaign could take four to five years to play out."

Capital campaigns rarely collect all money pledged. The church plans on an attrition rate of 10 percent, Ward said, so "it's not like we are going to have to change our campaign."

If anyone held out money because of the Bishop McLaughlin contract, there is irony in their choice. As the No. 1 priority, the high school will be the first project financed. If the capital campaign comes up short, projects lower on the list will lose out, as will local parishes, which receive one-fifth or all dollars collected.

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