By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — For the first time in its history, the Fall River Diocese will begin assessing each of its 82 parishes to help support the financial operations of the diocese. In the United States, parish assessments are already in place in more than 90 percent of dioceses.
Beginning in January 2016, each of the parishes will be assessed between eight and 14 percent of their regular income, including weekly and annual collections.
The assessment will vary from parish to parish, based upon its reported annual income.
Specially designated drives and charitable collections — including the diocese’s annual Catholic Charities Appeal — will not be subject to the assessment, however. The annual springtime campaign provides funding for the critical charitable services and programs sponsored by the diocese to help those in need throughout Southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the Islands.
The assessment, estimated at $3.8 million, will be used to cover part of the growing deficits in the diocese’s annual budget, according to director of communications John E. Kearns Jr.
Collected revenue will help fund the operations of the central administration of the diocese, which, in turn, supports all diocesan parishes and institutions. Among these services are those handling matters of real estate, clergy personnel, employee benefits and insurance, canonical processes, archives, some facilities and construction consultation, and legal assistance.
Pastors and parochial administrators were notified of the assessments last month and formal announcements were made to parishioners last weekend.
The financial challenges in the diocese have been steadily growing since the 1990s and upon consultation with other diocesan officials, the bishop determined the time had come to address it, Kearns said.
“After careful review of the situation and after prayer, reflection and consultation with the diocesan Finance Council and the Presbyteral Council, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., had concluded that the implementation of a parish assessment policy in the Fall River Diocese was necessary,” Kearns said in a prepared statement issued by the diocese last week.
The Church’s Code of Canon Law provides the diocesan bishop with the right to impose an assessment or tax on parishes for the support of the needs of the local Church. It’s a practice that dates back centuries and is in wide use in the Church around the world.
To date, the Fall River Diocese has been very fortunate — it has been among the very few dioceses to have not had to rely on such income.
Unfortunately, the situation today is far different. Over the past 20 years, a number of financial challenges have emerged that have impacted the financial stability of the diocese. Since the 1990s, declining church attendance, rising costs and increased spending to support the diocese have all negatively impacted its financial resources.
In addition, over the years an increasing number of entities in the diocese have significantly fallen behind in paying for their property and health insurance, requiring the diocese to advance these costs on their behalf. Exacerbating this financial situation has been many years of low, and at times, non-existent interest rates. What has remained in investments and savings has earned little in return.
Together, these challenges have created a “perfect financial storm of sorts,” according to Kearns, which have depleted reserves and eroded the diocesan financial foundation to the point where the need for change was imminent.
Dr. Charles Zech, faculty director of the Center for Church Management at Villanova University School of Business, said he was surprised to hear that the Fall River Diocese didn’t already have a parish assessment in place.
“It’s very, very common and whether you like it or not, it’s got to be done,” Zech said.
Zech attributed the growing need for parish assessments to the sluggish economy and an increased reliance on many of the social services the Church provides.
“With the combination of providing more services and the shortfall in revenue, it’s difficult to keep up,” Zech said.
Zech said the shortage of priests and religious and the fact that dioceses are now relying more and more on lay people and “well-qualified professionals” has also contributed to overall expenses.
“The Church got by for a long time with scandalously underpaid nuns and priests, so now we’re moving more to a lay workforce,” he said. “And even the lay people are well underpaid, but they still cost more than a nun or a priest would have in the past.”
According to the statement released by the diocese, the assessment is a sign that all Catholics are part of a bigger community and must do their share to support it. Parishes are also part of the Fall River Diocese, and income offered through an equitable parish assessment policy is another way to share in its overall mission.
Noting that each parish is not an independent congregation but part of the worldwide Universal Church, Father Jon-Paul Gallant, pastor of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Parish in South Attleboro, informed his parishioners of the assessment last weekend.
“Our bishop has asked all the parishes in the diocese to contribute to the central administration that assists him in his role as the pastor of the diocese,” Father Gallant said. “This includes parishes that are financially secure as well as those ‘on the periphery,’ as the Holy Father might say.
“Our parish is not wealthy, but we are able to pay our bills. We have been assessed at 11 percent of parish income beginning on Jan. 1, 2016. So, if you are able to add 11 cents to each dollar of your parish support, we will be able to assist our bishop and all our fellow parishioners in the Diocese of Fall River. Remember, we are all in this ‘One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church’ together, and although this assessment will be a financial challenge to the parish, I am sure it is one we can meet together.”
“We are all part of the diocese and it’s important for us to do our best to support one another,” said Father George C. Bellenoit, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in South Yarmouth. “I think we’ve been blessed by the fact that we haven’t been asked to do something like this before in our history, and we’re only now being asked to do something that most other dioceses have been doing for many years.”