Cardinal among 10 indicted by Vatican for financial crimes

Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, who has been caught up in a real estate scandal, speaks to the media a day after he resigned suddenly and gave up his right to take part in an eventual conclave to elect a pope, near the Vatican, in Rome, Italy, September 25, 2020.

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  • Pope approved move against cardinal, who says he is innocent
  • Former head of Vatican Financial Intelligence denies charges
  • Becciu most senior Vatican official charged with financial crime
  • Trial to start July 27

A prominent Italian cardinal was among 10 people sent to trial in the Vatican on Saturday charged with financial crimes including embezzlement, money laundering, fraud, extortion and abuse of office.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, formerly a senior official in the Vatican administration, as well as two top officials at the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Unit will go on trial on July 27 over a multi-million euro scandal involving the Vatican’s purchase of a building in one of London’s smartest districts.

The trial will inevitably bring a swirl of media interest to the tiny city-state surrounded by Rome, and appears to underscore Pope Francis’ determination to cure the rot in Vatican finances, even if it involves messy public hearings.

Becciu, 73, whom the pope fired from his senior clerical post last year for alleged nepotism, and who has always maintained his innocence during a two-year investigation, becomes the most senior Vatican official to be charged with financial crimes.

The pope personally gave the required approval last week for Becciu to be indicted, according to a 487-page indictment request seen by Reuters. The Vatican announced the indictments in a two-page statement.

The charges against Becciu include embezzlement and abuse of office. An Italian woman who worked for him was charged with embezzlement and the cardinal’s former secretary, a priest, was accused of extortion.

Becciu said in a statement that he was a victim of a “machination” and reaffirmed his “absolute innocence”.

Two Italian brokers, Gianluigi Torzi and Raffaele Mincione, were charged with embezzlement, fraud and money laundering. Torzi, for whom Italian magistrates issued an arrest warrant in April, was also charged with extortion.

There was no immediate response to attempts to reach their lawyers, but both men have consistently denied wrongdoing.
Four companies associated with individual defendants, two in Switzerland, one in the United States and one in Slovenia, were also indicted, according to the document.

POLICE RAID

The investigation into the purchase of the building became public on Oct. 1, 2019, when Vatican police raided the offices of the Secretariat of State, the administrative heart of the Catholic Church, and those of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority (AIF).

The then-president of the AIF, Rene Bruelhart, a 48-year-old Swiss, and AIF’s former Italian director, Tommaso Di Ruzza, 46, were charged with abuse of office for allegedly failing to adequately protect the Vatican’s interests and giving Torzi what the indictment request called an “undue advantage”.

Di Ruzza was also accused of embezzlement related to alleged inappropriate use of his official credit card, and of divulging confidential information.

Bruelhart said in a text message that he had “always carried out my functions and duties with correctness” and that “the truth about my innocence will emerge.”

Di Ruzza did not immediately respond to a voicemail requesting comment.

In 2014, the Secretariat of State invested more than 200 million euros, much of it from contributions from the faithful, in a fund run by Mincione, securing about 45% of a commercial and residential building at 60 Sloane Avenue in London’s South Kensington district.

The indictment request said Mincione had tried to deceive the Vatican, which in 2018 tried to end the relationship.
It turned to Torzi for help in buying up the rest of the building, but later accused him of extortion.

‘ENORMOUS LOSSES’

At the time, Becciu was in the last year of his post as deputy secretary of state for general affairs, a powerful administrative position that handles hundreds of millions of euros.

All told, the Secretariat of State sank more than 350 million euros into the investment, according to Vatican media, and suffered what Cardinal George Pell, the former Vatican treasurer, told Reuters last year were “enormous losses”.

Torzi was arrested in the Vatican in June 2020, and spent a week in custody.

According to the indictment request, Becciu is charged with five counts of embezzlement, two of abuse of office, and one count of inducing a witness to perjury. About 75 pages of the document are dedicated to Becciu.

It says Becciu tried to “heavily deflect” the inquiry into Vatican investments, including the London building, and tried to discredit the investigating magistrates via the Italian media.

Becciu continued to have influence over money transfers at the Secretariat even after he left the post, the document said.

The main charges against Becciu involve the alleged funnelling of money and contracts to companies or charitable organisations controlled by his brothers on their native island of Sardinia.

Another Sardinian, Cecilia Maronga, 40, who worked for Becciu, was charged with embezzlement. Her cellphone was not connected.

The indictment request said she had received about 575,000 euros from the Secretariat of State in 2018-2019.

She has said on Italian television that the money, sent to her company in Slovenia, was to ransom kidnapped missionaries in Africa. But the indictment request said much of it was used for “personal benefit”, including the purchase of luxury goods.

Complete Article HERE!

Former Rapid City priest sentenced to 7.75 years in prison for stealing from diocese

Marcin Garbacz

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A former Rapid City priest will serve 7.75 years in federal prison and owes more than $300,000 in restitution after being convicted of 65 felony financial crimes related to stealing donations from the diocese.

Marcin Garbacz “exploited his position as a priest” and “continues to play the victim,” prosecutor Benjamin Patterson said Monday at the federal courthouse in Rapid City.

Garbacz, 42, was sentenced after a jury convicted him of 50 counts of wire fraud, nine counts of money laundering, five counts of filing false tax returns, and one count of transporting stolen money between 2012 and 2018.

Garbacz apologized to parishioners, saying he unfairly harmed them while he was angry with the Diocese of Rapid City and the Catholic Church. Among other complaints, he said he was upset that church doctrine considers gay men like him “intrinsically disordered.”

Your crimes were serious, deliberate and show evidence of a “sophisticated criminal mind,” Judge Jeffrey Viken told Garbacz.

Viken said 4.75 years of the sentence is for the crimes related to stealing from the diocese while the remaining three years is for stealing from the IRS and American people by filing false tax returns. Viken also sentenced Garbacz to three years of supervised release once he’s completed his prison term.

Garbacz owes $258,696 to the diocese that will be equally divided among the three Rapid City churches he stole from, Viken said. He also owes $46,008 to the IRS for the tax crimes for a total of $304,704 in restitution.

“The diocese trusts in the judicial system and appreciates its dedication in making sure that justice is served in this case,” the diocese said in an emailed statement.

About a dozen community members and a half-dozen priests attended the hearing. None of them gave victim impact statements during the hearing and the priests declined interviews.

However, priests from the three victimized churches — the Cathedral, Saint Therese and Blessed Sacrament — submitted sealed victim impact statements to Viken. Father Michel Mulloy, the former diocesan administrator, sent a statement before the diocese announced this fall that he is under investigation after being accused of sexually abusing a child in the early 1980s.

Garbacz received 11 letters of support from the community that were written before it was announced last Friday that he’s facing new child sexual abuse charges.

Garbacz made an unusually long statement compared to other defendants who chose to speak during their sentencing hearing.

“I’m really sorry for what I did … I know that I violated their trust,” he said.

Garbacz said he harmed parishioners who donated to the church and those who could have been helped with the funds. He did not directly apologize to his fellow priests, the former bishop he served under or the diocese.

“I disagreed with the institution” and was treated as a “second-class citizen,” he said.

Garbacz said he was at odds with the Catholic Church over its teachings on same-sex attraction. He also said the diocese discouraged priests from showing any signs of weakness and gave them unrealistic and unclear goals.

“I felt I needed to leave the job,” he said of why he moved to Washington and started working at FedEx after completing a treatment program in St. Louis instead of returning to his priestly duties in Rapid City.

Garbacz said the steps former Bishop Robert Gruss said he needed to take to be un-suspended were unrealistic. He also said he realized he already lost credibility in the diocese and wanted to work on taking care of himself.

Garbacz said he wants to continue therapy and find a new career so he can pay his restitution.

“I can’t explain it away,” defense lawyer Jennifer Albertson said of her client’s crimes.

Albertson said Garbacz differed from many of her clients in that he had a good upbringing. However it was probably “psychologically damaging” to be gay while growing up in Poland and then becoming a Catholic priest, she said.

She said the diocese had questioned whether it was a good idea to bring Garbacz to the diocese but did not explain what she meant by that. The diocese did not immediately respond to a message about this.

Albertson said Garbacz ultimately committed a “crime of opportunity” since he had access to where the donations were stored and the diocese did a poor job accounting for the cash. It then “got out of control.”

She asked for a prison term that would let Garbacz return to work and pay restitution while he’s still young and healthy.

“Those people deserve that money back,” Albertson said of the parishioners who donated. “Those are the people he really hurt.”

Patterson asked for a seven-year sentence.

Monday was the first time Garbacz apologized and expressed that he knew he hurt people, Patterson said. He said Garbacz recently said he went to trial to show how the church was bad at tracking money and that the expensive items he bought — which included a $10,000 diamond ring, a grand piano and a Cadillac — were all used for church purposes.

“He can’t see past himself,” Patterson said.

He said Garbacz committed “multiple acts in multiple states,” caused parishioners to stop donating to the church, harmed priests who were his friends, and made the diocese lose credibility.

Garbacz’s crimes and concealment were complex, Patterson added. Among other acts, Garbacz repeatedly stole money, committed his thefts during the night, bought tamper proof bags, forged signatures, lied about how he paid for expensive items, made multiple deposits to avoid IRS suspicion, took out his money once he was caught and prepared to flee to Poland.

The fact that $40,000 of Garbacz’s stolen money remains missing shows how he covered up his crimes, Patterson said.

Garbacz will not be headed directly to prison because he’s now facing the separate indictment related to child sexual abuse.

He’s charged with possessing child porn between July 2011 and May 2019 and “engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place” by traveling to another country and having sexual conduct with a boy under the age of 18.

Garbacz used to work as a parish priest but became a teacher and chaplain at the Rapid City Catholic School System by July 2012, Patterson said during the trial. He is scheduled for a preliminary hearing at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. ​

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic diocese paid paltry sums to two poor, black abuse victims

A SURVIVOR of clerical abuse, and now the Mississippi coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), has blasted the Jackson Diocese and a Franciscan order over paltry compensation payments made to two black men who were abused by a friar in the 1990s.

Mark Belenchia

by Barry Duke

Mark Belenchia, above, was commenting on the settlements made to La Jarvis Love and Joshua Love who suffered abuse at the hands of Paul A West.

The former Franciscan friar and fourth-grade teacher has been extradited from Wisconsin to Mississippi to faces sexual battery charges.

Belenchia, whose abuse by a Catholic priest began when he was around 13 and lasted for three years, said of the settlements:

They were harmed as children and they were harmed as adults. The Diocese of Jackson and the Franciscan order ought to be ashamed of their performance.

Reporting for Religion News Service, Michael Rezendes wrote:

The men making the allegations, La Jarvis Love and Joshua Love, both 37, are cousins who grew up together and encountered West in the 1990s, when he was a teacher and later the principal at the St. Francis of Assisi School in Greenwood, Mississippi.

Three years ago, the cousins reported that West sexually assaulted them on school grounds and on road trips, including one to a New York summer camp established by the Franciscans, a Roman Catholic religious order.

As The Associated Press first reported, nearly two years ago La Jarvis Love and Joshua Love each agreed to settle their claims for $15,000 – far less than most clergy abuse victims receive.

A third man, Joshua’s younger brother, Raphael, also alleged West sexually abused him and reported the abuse to church authorities in 1998, after which West returned to Wisconsin. Raphael Love rejected a settlement similar to those signed by his brother and cousin.

In November, La Jarvis Love and Joshua Love filed a lawsuit in federal district court in New York, claiming the Franciscans pressured them into signing low-ball settlements that required their silence about their allegations. At the time they signed the settlements, they were not represented by an attorney.

“They felt they could treat us that way because we’re poor and we’re Black,” Joshua Love told the AP.

Father James Gannon, the leader of a Wisconsin-based group of Franciscan Friars, negotiated the settlements. Last summer, he denied that racism or the Loves’ poverty were factors in the amount of money offered . “Absolutely not,” he told the AP.

In 2006, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, which includes Greenwood, settled lawsuits covering 19 victims — 17 of whom were white – for $5 million. That average payout of $263,000 for each survivor is 17 times that offered to each of the Loves. Payments in more recent settlements nationally have ranged far higher.

Gannon also attempted to negotiate a similar agreement with Raphael Love, Joshua Love’s younger brother, who is serving two life sentences in a Tennessee prison for a double homicide he committed as a juvenile. Raphael Love refused Gannon’s offer because, he said, the amount was not enough to hire a criminal attorney willing to argue that he deserves a new trial.

West, 60, did not contest his extradition at a hearing in Outagamie Country, Wisconsin on August 17. He arrived at the Leflore County Jail in Greenwood, Mississippi, earlier this week following an investigation by the Mississippi Attorney General’s public integrity division.

West also has been charged with second-degree sexual assault of a child in Wisconsin.

Complete Article HERE!

Disgraced West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield was told a year ago to make restitution.

His successor says Bransfield has gone incommunicado.

Michael J. Bransfield, then-bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., in 2015.

By Michelle Boorstein

More than a year after Pope Francis ordered ousted West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield to make personal amends for alleged sexual and financial misconduct, his successor bishop says he has yet to hear from Bransfield about a restitution proposal.

Last Tuesday, MetroNews, a West Virginia news site, quoted Bishop Mark Brennan as saying that he had not heard from Bransfield in “many months, and I would not expect to. … Whatever he is doing, he is doing and is in a dark hole. We do not know exactly what he is up to; we have not been in communication.”

In July 2019, Francis forbade Bransfield, a well-connected Philadelphian who had held prominent national spots in the Catholic Church, from celebrating Mass and from living in West Virginia. Bransfield had led the church there for 13 years. In November, Brennan had proposed, per Francis’s demand, a specific proposal for Bransfield’s restitution.

Some experts say the restitution package was a first for a bishop. Brennan called for his predecessor, now 76, to pay the diocese nearly $800,000, to apologize to victims, to lose his place in the diocesan cemetery, and to lose the normal bishop retirement package and instead receive a lower stipend equal to that of someone who had been a priest for 13 years.

Diocesan spokesman Tim Bishop on Monday referred The Washington Post to a July 28 letter Brennan wrote to the diocese. The letter only briefly mentioned Bransfield, saying that neither Brennan nor the papal nuncio — the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States — had heard back from Rome since November “on the plan of amends I submitted.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Brennan in the MetroNews report is saying Rome needs to approve of Brennan’s plan, Bransfield’s response or both.

Bransfield declined to comment Monday, and his lawyers didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Post in 2019 obtained an internal church investigation that found Bransfield, as bishop in one of the country’s poorest states, spent millions of dollars of diocesan money on chartered jets, lavish furnishings at his official residence and nearly 600 cash gifts to fellow clergymen. The Post also found that $21 million was moved from a church-owned hospital in Wheeling, W.Va., to be used at Bransfield’s discretion. The money was moved into the Bishop’s Fund, a charity Bransfield created with the stated purpose of helping residents of West Virginia, tax filings showed.

MetroNews quoted Brennan last week as saying Bransfield “would not come up with his own plan and did not admit to his actions. Brennan previously told MetroNews that Bransfield told him he did not know who he needed to apologize to.”

Francis was the one who initially called for Bransfield to make amends, Brennan said told MetroNews.

“I wasn’t sent in to demand that. They demanded that. They asked me to work with him, and let me tell you, that was not easy to do,” Brennan said.

Bransfield has denied wrongdoing, saying that his staff in Wheeling was responsible for diocesan finances and which accounts checks came from. He has told The Post that he thinks he greatly improved the financial health of the diocese during his tenure and that gifts and lavish perks were within church culture norm. He has denied the claims of seminarians and priests who said he sexually harassed them.

Complete Article HERE!

After lobbying, Catholic Church won $1.4B in virus aid


By REESE DUNKLIN and MICHAEL REZENDES

The U.S. Roman Catholic Church used a special and unprecedented exemption from federal rules to amass at least $1.4 billion in taxpayer-backed coronavirus aid, with many millions going to dioceses that have paid huge settlements or sought bankruptcy protection because of clergy sexual abuse cover-ups.

The church’s haul may have reached — or even exceeded — $3.5 billion, making a global religious institution with more than a billion followers among the biggest winners in the U.S. government’s pandemic relief efforts, an Associated Press analysis of federal data released this week found.

Houses of worship and faith-based organizations that promote religious beliefs aren’t usually eligible for money from the U.S. Small Business Administration. But as the economy plummeted and jobless rates soared, Congress let faith groups and other nonprofits tap into the Paycheck Protection Program, a $659 billion fund created to keep Main Street open and Americans employed.

By aggressively promoting the payroll program and marshaling resources to help affiliates navigate its shifting rules, Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools and other ministries have so far received approval for at least 3,500 forgivable loans, AP found.

The Archdiocese of New York, for example, received 15 loans worth at least $28 million just for its top executive offices. Its iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue was approved for at least $1 million.

In Orange County, California, where a sparkling glass cathedral estimated to cost over $70 million recently opened, diocesan officials working at the complex received four loans worth at least $3 million.

And elsewhere, a loan of at least $2 million went to the diocese covering Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, where a church investigation revealed last year that then-Bishop Michael Bransfield embezzled funds and made sexual advances toward young priests.

Simply being eligible for low-interest loans was a new opportunity. But the church couldn’t have been approved for so many loans — which the government will forgive if they are used for wages, rent and utilities — without a second break.

Religious groups persuaded the Trump administration to free them from a rule that typically disqualifies an applicant with more than 500 workers. Without this preferential treatment, many Catholic dioceses would have been ineligible because — between their head offices, parishes and other affiliates — their employees exceed the 500-person cap.

“The government grants special dispensation, and that creates a kind of structural favoritism,” said Micah Schwartzman, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in constitutional issues and religion who has studied the Paycheck Protection Program. “And that favoritism was worth billions of dollars.”

The amount that the church collected, between $1.4 billion and $3.5 billion, is an undercount. The Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference, an organization of Catholic financial officers, surveyed members and reported that about 9,000 Catholic entities received loans. That is nearly three times the number of Catholic recipients the AP could identify.

The AP couldn’t find more Catholic beneficiaries because the government’s data, released after pressure from Congress and a lawsuit from news outlets including the AP, didn’t name recipients of loans under $150,000 — a category in which many smaller churches would fall. And because the government released only ranges of loan amounts, it wasn’t possible to be more precise.

Even without a full accounting, AP’s analysis places the Catholic Church among the major beneficiaries in the Paycheck Protection Program, which also has helped companies backed by celebrities, billionaires, state governors and members of Congress.

The program was open to all religious groups, and many took advantage. Evangelical advisers to President Donald Trump, including his White House spiritual czar, Paula White-Cain, also received loans.

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‘TRULY IN NEED’

There is no doubt that state shelter-in-place orders disrupted houses of worship and businesses alike.

Masses were canceled, even during the Holy Week and Easter holidays, depriving parishes of expected revenue and contributing to layoffs in some dioceses. Some families of Catholic school students are struggling to make tuition payments. And the expense of disinfecting classrooms once classes resume will put additional pressure on budgets.

But other problems were self-inflicted. Long before the pandemic, scores of dioceses faced increasing financial pressure because of a dramatic rise in recent clergy sex abuse claims.

The scandals that erupted in 2018 reverberated throughout the world. Pope Francis ordered the former archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to a life of “prayer and penance” following allegations he abused minors and adult seminarians. And a damning grand jury report about abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses revealed bishops had long covered for predator priests, spurring investigations in more than 20 other states.

As the church again reckoned with its longtime crisis, abuse reports tripled during the year ending June 2019 to a total of nearly 4,500 nationally. Meanwhile, dioceses and religious orders shelled out $282 million that year — up from $106 million just five years earlier. Most of that went to settlements, in addition to legal fees and support for offending clergy.

Loan recipients included about 40 dioceses that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years paying victims through compensation funds or bankruptcy proceedings. AP’s review found that these dioceses were approved for about $200 million, though the value is likely much higher.

One was the New York Archdiocese. As a successful battle to lift the statute of limitations on the filing of child sexual abuse lawsuits gathered steam, Cardinal Timothy Dolan established a victim compensation fund in 2016. Since then, other dioceses have established similar funds, which offer victims relatively quick settlements while dissuading them from filing lawsuits.

Spokesperson Joseph Zwilling said the archdiocese simply wanted to be “treated equally and fairly under the law.” When asked about the waiver from the 500-employee cap that religious organizations received, Zwilling deferred to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A spokesperson for the bishops’ conference acknowledged its officials lobbied for the paycheck program, but said the organization wasn’t tracking what dioceses and Catholic agencies received.

“These loans are an essential lifeline to help faith-based organizations to stay afloat and continue serving those in need during this crisis,” spokesperson Chieko Noguchi said in a written statement. According to AP’s data analysis, the church and all its organizations reported retaining at least 407,900 jobs with the money they were awarded.

Noguchi also wrote the conference felt strongly that “the administration write and implement this emergency relief fairly for all applicants.”

Not every Catholic institution sought government loans. The Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy based in Stamford, Connecticut, told AP that even though its parishes experienced a decline in donations, none of the organizations in its five-state territory submitted applications.

Deacon Steve Wisnowski, a financial officer for the eparchy, said pastors and church managers used their rainy-day savings and that parishioners responded generously with donations. As a result, parishes “did not experience a severe financial crisis.”

Wisnowski said his superiors understood the program was for “organizations and businesses truly in need of assistance.”

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LOBBYING FOR A BREAK

The law that created the Paycheck Protection Program let nonprofits participate, as long as they abided by SBA’s “affiliation rule.” The rule typically says that only businesses with fewer than 500 employees, including at all subsidiaries, are eligible.

Lobbying by the church helped religious organizations get an exception.

The Catholic News Service reported that the bishops’ conference and several major Catholic nonprofit agencies worked throughout the week of March 30 to ensure that the “unique nature of the entities would not make them ineligible for the program” because of how SBA defines a “small” business. Those conversations came just days after President Trump signed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which included the Paycheck Protection Program.

In addition, federal records show the Los Angeles archdiocese, whose leader heads the bishops’ conference, paid $20,000 to lobby the U.S. Senate and House on “eligibility for non-profits” under the CARES Act. The records also show that Catholic Charities USA, a social service arm of the church with member agencies in dioceses across the country, paid another $30,000 to lobby on the act and other issues.

In late April, after thousands of Catholic institutions had secured loans, several hundred Catholic leaders pressed for additional help on a call with President Trump. During the call, Trump underscored the coming presidential election and touted himself as the candidate best aligned with religious conservatives, boasting he was the “best (president) the Catholic church has ever seen,” according to Crux, an online publication that covers church-related news.

The lobbying paid off.

Catholic Charities USA and its member agencies were approved for about 110 loans worth between $90 million and $220 million at least, according to the data.

In a statement, Catholic Charities said: “Each organization is a separate legal entity under the auspices of the bishop in the diocese in which the agency is located. CCUSA supports agencies that choose to become members, but does not have any role in their daily operations or governance.”

The Los Angeles archdiocese told AP in a survey that reporters sent before the release of federal data that 247 of its 288 parishes — and all but one of its 232 schools — received loans. The survey covered more than 180 dioceses and eparchies.

Like most dioceses, Los Angeles wouldn’t disclose its total dollar amount. While the federal data doesn’t link Catholic recipients to their home dioceses, AP found 37 loans to the archdiocese and its affiliates worth between $9 million and $23 million, including one for its downtown cathedral.

In 2014, the archdiocese paid a record $660 million to settle sex abuse claims from more than 500 victims. Spokespeople for Los Angeles Archbishop Jose M. Gomez did not respond to additional questions about the archdiocese’s finances and lobbying.

In program materials, SBA officials said they provided the affiliation waiver to religious groups in deference to their unique organizational structure, and because the public health response to slow the coronavirus’ spread disrupted churches just as it did businesses.

A senior official in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which oversees the SBA, acknowledged in a statement the wider availability of SBA loans to religious organizations. “The CARES Act expanded eligibility to include nonprofits in the PPP, and SBA’s regulations ensured that no eligible religious nonprofit was excluded from participation due to its beliefs or denomination,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, some legal experts say that the special consideration the government gave faith groups in the loan program has further eroded the wall between church and state provided in the First Amendment. With that erosion, religious groups that don’t pay taxes have gained more access to public money, said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and attorney who has represented clergy abuse victims on constitutional issues during bankruptcy proceedings.

“At this point, the argument is you’re anti-religious if in fact you would say the Catholic Church shouldn’t be getting government funding,” Hamilton said.

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CASHING IN FAST

After its lobbying blitz, the Catholic Church worked with parishes and schools to access the money.

Many dioceses — from large ones such as the Archdiocese of Boston to smaller ones such as the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin — assembled how-to guides to help their affiliates apply. The national Catholic fiscal conference also hosted multiple webinars with legal and financial experts to help coach along local leaders.

Federal data show that the bulk of the church’s money was approved during the loan program’s first two weeks. That’s when demand for the first-come, first-served assistance was so high that the initial $349 billion was quickly exhausted, shutting out many local businesses.

Overall, nearly 500 loans approved to Catholic entities exceeded $1 million each. The AP found that at least eight hit the maximum range of $5 million to $10 million. Many of the listed recipients were the offices of bishops, headquarters of leading religious orders, major churches, schools and chapters of Catholic Charities.

Also among recipients was the Saint Luke Institute. The Catholic treatment center for priests accused of sexual abuse and those suffering from other disorders received a loan ranging from $350,000 to $1 million. Based in Silver Spring, Maryland, the institute has at times been a way station for priests accused of sexual abuse who returned to active ministry only to abuse again.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the church’s aggressive pursuit of funds better than four dioceses that sued the federal government to receive loans, even though they entered bankruptcy proceedings due to mounting clergy sex-abuse claims. Small Business Administration rules prohibit loans to applicants in bankruptcy.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico — once home to a now-closed and notorious treatment center for predator priests — prevailed in court, clearing the way for its administrative offices to receive nearly $1 million. It accused the SBA of overreaching by blocking bankruptcy applications when Congress didn’t spell that out.

Yet even when a diocese has lost in bankruptcy court, or its case is pending, its affiliated parishes, schools and other organizations remain eligible for loans.

On the U.S. territory of Guam, well over 200 clergy abuse lawsuits led church leaders in the tiny Archdiocese of Agana to seek bankruptcy protection, as they estimated at least $45 million in liabilities. Even so, the archdiocese’s parishes, schools and other organizations have received at least $1.7 million as it sues the SBA for approval to get a loan for its headquarters, according to bankruptcy filings.

The U.S. church may have a troubling record on sex abuse, but Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, Pennsylvania, pushed back on the idea that dioceses should be excluded from the government’s rescue package. Approximately 80 organizations within his diocese received loans worth $10.3 million, the diocese said, with most of the money going to parishes and schools.

Persico pointed out that church entities help feed, clothe and shelter the poor — and in doing so keep people employed.

“I know some people may react with surprise that government funding helped support faith-based schools, parishes and dioceses,” he said. “The separation of church and state does not mean that those motivated by their faith have no place in the public square.”