Catholic School Closings: The Financial Result of the Church’s Sex Scandal
At the 88th annual Academy Awards in 2015, Spotlight--a movie that follows diligent Boston Globe reporters in their attempt to expose the rampant and repulsive sex abuse committed by Roman Catholic priests in Boston and throughout the country--won the Oscar for Best Picture. On top of the widespread praise the movie received from prominent film critics, its message has deeply resonated in the minds of everyday audiences, its awesome power staying with viewers long after the credits rolled. Spotlight helped to cement a stigma about the Roman Catholic Church that had been circulating in society for nearly two decades, a stigma that associates the Church with pedophilia, rape, and coercion. It would be difficult to say that this view of the Church is unwarranted in light of the scandal, and Rome deserves truly devastating repercussions for its negligence, as it knew about these scandalous cases and smothered them in secrecy rather than stop them. It is also fair to say that not all priests, bishops, or cardinals can be trusted, especially in positions dealing with children. The substantial problem with this widespread notion that the Catholic Church is full of child molesters and sexual predators is, however, that it is simply not true. Nevertheless, on a more psychological level, this negative stigma about the Church lingers in people’s minds. Years after this scandal was unveiled, the effects of this lingering caution are finally observable.
Perhaps the most obvious negative repercussion of the sex abuse crisis in the Church is the rapid closing of many Catholic elementary schools throughout the nation. In the past two decades, archdioceses throughout the country have closed over 2,000 Catholic elementary schools. Enrollment in the Catholic elementary schools which remain open has simultaneously diminished so intensely that schools can barely, if at all, afford to keep their doors open. When asked why they withdrew their children from these schools, parents usually respond by citing the excessively high price of tuition.
So how does this relate to the sex scandal? Well, tuition rates were not always this high.
Obviously, tuition is not just a random appraisal of a year’s worth of Catholic education. Rather, it is calculated after the expenses of the school are totaled. Normally, Catholic parishes (the local Church and its affiliated services) give a monetary contribution to the parish school to prevent tuition rates from skyrocketing. In this manner, Catholic schools are a financial offshoot of their respective parishes. Because of this, when parishes themselves face massive expenses because they fail to generate or collect sufficient funds to cover their fees, they greatly compromise their schools’ chances of remaining open. The sex abuse scandal resulted in precisely some of these massive financial shortcomings.
When victims eventually came out and got the attention of the media, many decided to take legal action against the Catholic Church. The Church, thus, had to pay enormous fees for going to court, not to mention the settlement money it paid out victims. In 2003, The New York Times revealed that the Boston Archdiocese ran up a $46 million deficit in its annual budget because $150 million had been paid in settlement money for sex abuse cases. The second major way in which the scandal cost the Church exorbitant amounts of money: Catholics’ new negative perception of the Church. In 2003, a Gallup poll revealed that once Catholics were made aware of the sex scandals, 4 in 10 withheld money from the Church.
Picture the Boston Archdiocese in 2003. At a time when it has significantly lost money because of the payouts in sex abuse cases, its annual earnings tally far less than usual (40% less, according to Gallup) because Catholics who normally generously donated to the Church now withheld money. Though the Church deserved this financial punishment, the great problem is that this massive financial bomb decimated the wrong target: Catholic elementary schools. The closing of these schools did not even punish priests, as most Catholic schools are dominated by lay people and had very few priests in any positions of power or instruction. Of the 146,526 people who are part of Catholic school staff throughout the country, only 3.2 % of those people are religious or clergy. (Although I could not find specific figures for what percentage of those 3.2% are priests, nuns are the most common religious persons to be found in Catholic schools.)
As explained earlier, Catholic elementary schools are the financial offshoots of their respective parishes, relying on contributions from their parishes’ earnings to maintain a reasonable tuition rate. When a parish lacks the funds to sustain such contributions, this relationship quickly and easily becomes parasitic, and makes the option to close its corresponding Catholic elementary school very appealing. Not only is this an obvious solution to this problem, but it also immediately frees up funds which can assist the survival of the parish. Despite this logic, closing a Catholic elementary school not only devastates its students and its teachers but can also damage community relations in urban neighborhoods.
In these neighborhoods, Catholic elementary schools help foster a sense of community, a friendly environment in which both children and families can come together. In their 2014 book Lost Classroom, Lost Community, Margaret Brinig and Nicole Garnett studied “social capital,”or forms of social organization, such as networks and social trust, that help to create “coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” amongst members of a community. The authors noted here that social capital exists in abundance in neighborhoods where Catholic elementary schools are present, further driving home the point that Catholic schools constitute “a means to facilitate trust,” as the “high academic expectations of Catholic Schools for all students, regardless of race or background,” bring populations together and provide their students with a level playing field. As someone who attended a Catholic elementary school run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I can attest to the decent diversity of Catholic schools. Because of this diversity, I have been around kids of all racial and economic backgrounds from a young age, even though my home neighborhood is predominantly white. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, minority populations account for 19.8 % of the Catholic elementary school population. At the very start of students’ education, Catholic school students see the value of diversity and form friendships with those who differ from them. In their close analysis of the impact of Catholic schools, Brinig and Garnett also note that crime rates decrease slower in urban neighborhoods which lack Catholic schools. For example, between 1995 and 2005 in Chicago, the citywide crime rate dropped by 25%, but only by 17% in police districts where Catholic schools had been closed.
Going forward, it is important to note that this problem is solvable. The most basic solution: stop punishing the Catholic Church financially. This does not harm the priests involved in the scandal. If you are angry with your priests or your Church, do not hold back your money in the collection. If you feel the priests got off too easy, let your leaders know these priests deserve jail. If your parish is debating whether or not to close its elementary school, and your parish has a pastoral or a parish council, ask a council representative to petition to keep the school open, or to at least to make the pastor divulge why he wants to close the school. It is not fair that these great institutions--which raised our parents’ generation so carefully and spiritedly--are closing for the wrong reasons. We need Catholic elementary schools.
(Overhead photo: Susan Farley for The New York Times)