Like other churches across the country, the Catholic church in West Virginia struggled during the coronavirus pandemic to keep doors open or continue its usual community support until being bolstered by the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Act.
The Wheeling-Catholic diocese drew down $1,996,372 from the federal program meant to help businesses keep their workforce employed during the covid-19 crisis. The federal money also went to diocese rent, utilities and interest on mortgages and existing debt.
“Learning that religious organizations were eligible for the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program, the Diocese applied for that relief and received it, not only for diocesan operations but for most of its parishes and schools,” Mark Brennan, bishop of the Wheeling-Catholic diocese wrote in a letter accompanying a financial audit.
That federal financial relief was sought even as the church continued to hold millions of dollars in its own financial reserves, the audit shows.
The church used the federal money to keep employees on payroll and continue their health insurance even though facilities were closed for weeks, according to the diocese’s explanation of its audit. Although PPP is a loan program, the diocese intends to apply for loan forgiveness.
“There was no reason for our Church employees, who pay taxes, to lose their jobs and possibly their homes when the government was making funds available precisely to keep people at work,” Brennan wrote.
With an economic recovery now in its early stages, Brennan concluded that the Wheeling-Catholic Diocese does not need to apply for additional PPP assistance under the latest relief bill.
“Some parishes, schools and Catholic Charities do need that help, however, and the Diocese will help those who qualify apply for it,” he wrote.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston publicly released a financial audit as well as supplementary information this morning.
It shows the Catholic diocese in West Virginia continues to deal with the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic as well as fallout from the scandals surrounding former Bishop Michael Bransfield.
“The 2019-2020 fiscal year reminds me of the rollercoaster rides I took as a youth: lots of ups and downs,” wrote Brennan, who was installed as bishop toward the end of 2019.
Broader context on PPP
The financial stress led the church to embrace help from the federal government.
The role of the Paycheck Protection Program in bolstering church balance sheets across the country was the subject of an extensive Associated Press examination published this week.
The AP investigation concluded that dioceses across the nation received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while sitting on well over $10 billion in cash, short-term investments or other available funds. Despite the broad economic downturn, these assets have grown in many dioceses, AP concluded.
The nation’s nearly 200 dioceses, where bishops and cardinals govern, and other Catholic institutions received at least $3 billion from the Paycheck Protection Program, AP reported.
That perhaps makes the Roman Catholic Church the biggest beneficiary of the paycheck program, according to AP’s analysis. Data from the U.S. Small Business Administration was released following a public-records lawsuit by news organizations. The more precise information allowed AP to conclude a more thorough examination after the federal agency for months had shared only partial information.
The audit of the Wheeling-Charleston diocese notes that although the church’s goal is to draw down only 5 percent annually from its financial reserves, the church had $205 million in total assets available from resources such as cash, mineral rights, and other investments — particularly securities — in 2020.
Those reserves were down from $223 million the prior year.
Pandemic effects on W.Va. church finances
In West Virginia, the church halted public masses last March, reopening them by late May with precautions such as restricting attendance.
“The pandemic dramatically stopped diocesan revenue, as it did that of parishes,” Brennan wrote, noting that the church’s charitable efforts continued to help record numbers of unemployed and distressed people.
The financial stress extended to the church’s stock portfolio as well as its revenue from mineral rights such as oil and gas holdings. Meanwhile, Brennan wrote, struggling parishes and schools looked to the diocese for support.
In response, the diocese combined departments, reduced staff by attrition, offered early retirement to eligible employees and permanently closed two pastoral centers.
Brennan wrote that as the pandemic was hitting last March, he suspended the annual Catholic Sharing Appeal — which provides larger support to parishes early in the fiscal year and the most support for the diocese in the last quarter of the fiscal year. Brennan wrote that he had the diocese pay for the initial protective and sanitization supplies needed to safely reopen facilities.
But without the Catholic Sharing Appeal, the diocese initially concluded it could not give an additional $200,000 related gift to Catholic Charities. But, he wrote, “Catholic Charities did receive help from the PPP, which mitigated the loss.”
Effects of Bransfield scandals continue
As the year unfolded, the church was still dealing with fallout from the scandals surrounding former Bishop Michael Bransfield.
Bransfield served as bishop of the Wheeling-Catholic diocese from 2005 to 2018, when he retired. Following that, a church investigation examined multiple credible allegations of sexual harassment of adults, as well as financial improprieties.
Findings from an internal church investigation found Bransfield spent millions of dollars from the diocese on chartered jets, lavish furnishings at his official residence and nearly 600 cash gifts to fellow clergymen.
The audit shows that the Bishop’s Fund was dissolved and its remaining assets given to the diocese, which used them to purchase Wheeling Hospital’s interest in diocesan real estate, resulting in a formal separation of the two entities.
The diocese sold the former bishop’s residence for $1.2 million and cancelled the lease on his Wheeling retirement home. Bransfield had been told not to live in this Diocese in retirement.
Along with stipulating that the Bransfield accept a reduced retirement package, the church ordered him to pay back $441,000 of the diocesan funds he had used for personal expenses. That payment and the proceeds from the sale of the residence were put in a restricted fund for victims of sexual abuse and harassment.
More broadly, Brennan wrote that the church’s income supports its mission through teachers and priests, buildings and programs such as youth retreats and community pantries.
“In love we will seek to use the financial resources we have in order to do good to God’s people and others who cross our paths,” Brennan wrote.