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Chicago Tribune Investigation Reveals Financial Burdens Of Chicago Catholic Churches


Six years ago, the Archdiocese of Chicago asked its parishioners for a lot of money. It said it needed $350 million to keep churches and Catholic schools open. Catholics ended up pledging even more than the church asked for. But since then, dozens of churches and Catholic schools in Chicago have closed anyway. And so now people are asking where the money went.

David Heinzmann is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He went looking for some answers. Good morning, David.

DAVID HEINZMANN: Good morning.

KING: So what was going on with the church's finances in 2013 when it asked for all this money?

HEINZMANN: For a few years, they had started to run annual operating deficits that were in the tens of millions of dollars. And what happens is, when a parish and a school can't make ends meet, they turn to the archdiocese for help. And that was really starting to really affect the bottom line for the entire archdiocese.

KING: OK. And then people gave even more money than expected, right?

HEINZMANN: Right. So they went out in 2013 and build a giant capital campaign. The main thrust of it was to build $150 million long-term scholarship trust to fund Catholic - tuition for Catholic schools.

KING: Did that $150 million end up going to scholarships? - because it seems like it did not.

HEINZMANN: So six years later, as you said, they raised even more money. They raised $427 million in pledges, but that trust only has $45 million in it. And the principal explanation they gave us - the archdiocese gave us was that too much of the money came in the form of bequests of a handful of very wealthy donors who made pledges as part of their wills. But the main selling point of the campaign - the overall campaign back in 2013 was, if we get the money, we will put it in this trust. And that's just not the way it's worked out.

KING: So OK. There's a distinction here - people pledging money versus people giving money. But you say it hasn't worked out with the trust. Why not? What happened?

HEINZMANN: Well, a lot of the money went to parishes to solve problems locally at parishes. But there is a bit of a mystery here. There are people inside the church who have raised questions about the way that the archdiocese runs its accounting balance sheets. And some people wonder exactly where some of the money want. Even if you count the bequests money, they're still short tens of millions of dollars. And there just remains sort of a question of why that money didn't end up in the trust.

And the archdiocese, Catholic Church and other churches - there's a limit to how much they have to disclose publicly about their finances. The trust itself has a - is a 501(c)(3), and so it has to file a 990 form - an IRS form. So we have some window into the fact that the money isn't in the trust, but the exact reasons of why not enough money went into the trust remain a little bit murky.

KING: The church has been dealing with a lot of lawsuits linked to sexual abuse by priests. Is it possible the money went there?

HEINZMANN: They say no, absolutely not. But one of the problems is that when money stays in the archdiocese and doesn't go into the trust, there is a little bit of a mystery of how it's accounted for. They say that all of the money that's used to pay down the debt from misconduct comes from selling assets. The church owns a lot of land both in the city of Chicago and out in surrounding areas where they were going to, for instance, build cemeteries someday. A lot of that land is being sold or has been sold already to fund abuse settlements.

KING: I know when you started looking, you discovered that the church is facing some other very serious financial pressures that have complicated things. Just quickly - what are those pressures?

HEINZMANN: Yeah, and that's an issue that's not just a Chicago issue; it's sort of nationwide in the Catholic community - is that Catholics have moved, just like a lot of people have moved. They've migrated to the suburbs. And you know, the Catholic Church, in the early part of the 20th century, built an enormous amount of infrastructure - big churches, big schools. There was a lot of community pride in identifying as Catholic and - through your school or through your parish.

And over time, those people - their children and grandchildren did - but a lot of people did - they moved to the suburbs. And they built big churches in the suburbs, but they left behind some pretty big infrastructure in the city that the church still owns and has a hard time maintaining.

KING: OK. So they're paying for that maintenance as well.

David Heinzmann, investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Thanks, David.

HEINZMANN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.