By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006; C03
The hallways and exhibition galleries of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center are brightened by glass and limestone walls. The towering doors and enormous round table in the conference room are made of the finest blanched wood. There are rows of plush, immaculate seats in the three theaters.
What's missing from the $75 million complex are visitors. Much of the time, it is virtually empty.
With Pope John Paul's endorsement, the center's founders opened the 100,000-square-foot facility in Northeast Washington in March 2001 with aspirations of turning it into a major cultural institution -- where scholars would research Catholicism's role and influence, where religious leaders would gather for interfaith dialogue, where regular people would explore God and spirituality.
Five years later, it is $40 million in debt and has not drawn the attendance or financial support its founders expected. During a 2 1/2 -hour period Thursday, only two visitors passed through.
"It was a train wreck waiting to happen," Monsignor William A. Kerr, the center's executive director, said of the project. Part museum, part think tank and part public meeting space, the center has lacked a clear focus, making it hard to raise money, Kerr said.
News of the center's financial woes -- first reported this month by the independent newspaper National Catholic Reporter -- has angered some Catholics who criticized the project before it opened for spending millions on what they saw as a high-end tribute to the pope rather than on programs for the needy.
Much of the anger is concentrated in Detroit. Its archbishop, Cardinal Adam Maida, was the center's primary backer, and the archdiocese is carrying the entire $40 million debt in the form of loans or loan guarantees. Critics have contrasted the archdiocese's spending on the center with its decision last year to close 18 schools.
Kerr, a former vice president of Catholic University who came to the center in April 2004, said last week that the financial crisis was somewhat inevitable, as the center spent its endowment on construction before opening and had no board of directors until last fall.
Planners initially forecast 200,000 to 500,000 paying visitors a year. The $8 admission fee soon was replaced by a $5 suggested donation. Even so, only about 80,000 people went through the doors last year to visit exhibits and hear concerts and conferences, up from 70,000 the year before. About 10,000 came to the center during the week Pope John Paul II died.
"We thought people would be beating paths here, but it didn't happen," Kerr said. "How exactly we would get people here was never thought through."
The board of directors is scheduled to meet for the first time March 16. The members will discuss a proposal to make religious forums the center's primary focus -- forums such as one at which Iranian clerics talked about democracy, and another at which Israeli rabbis and Italian bishops discussed the concept of God's covenant.
Major donors will be more likely to give money if they can see a clear mission, said museums director Penny Fletcher. "People need to understand where you fit in this complex of so many things happening in Washington," she said.
This refocusing could mean fewer special exhibits and possibly fewer hours of being open to the public, Kerr and Fletcher said.
The center was essentially the vision of Maida, who had proposed to Pope John Paul II that an institution like a presidential library be built in his honor. The pope instead said he wanted a center that would explore interfaith issues from a Catholic perspective in Washington.
The center does have one exhibit space about the pope called the "Papal and Polish Heritage Room." The current exhibit there traces the pope's lifetime in four parts and focuses on his connection with the Jewish people.
But most of the displays are not about John Paul. Several permanent exhibits use computers and art to explore the teachings of different religions, for example. One current temporary exhibit displays massive models of the historic Temple Mount; another shows 57 portraits of popes through history.
Center officials said it has been hard to draw paying customers in a city where people expect major museums to be free. They also cite the center's location near Catholic University, a 20-minute walk from the nearest Metro station, and some bad timing -- soon after the museum's opening, Washington tourism dropped because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Ned McGrath, a spokesman for the Detroit archdiocese, said that although the center is "an underperforming loan," Maida still believes it is worthwhile. McGrath said the closing of parish schools is linked not to the center, but to Catholics moving out of the city and auto industry layoffs. He noted that many Detroit public schools also have closed.
Finance officials at the archdiocese have long known about the growing debt, he said. But Detroit area priests did not find out until a letter from Maida on Feb. 2, the same day the National Catholic Reporter published its story.
The center has a five-member executive committee, including Maida. The four other board members either did not return calls or declined to comment.
Kerr said there wasn't a schedule for repaying the Detroit archdiocese. "I think there were presumptions, not per se a plan," he said. McGrath said that "the matter is under review" and that the archdiocese "remains confident that its investment is secured by the building and the property."
But there is debate among Catholics about what constitutes an appropriate investment and appropriate oversight. About 70,000 people and institutions around the world gave money to build the center, including the Knights of Columbus and various Catholic dioceses.
"There is no controlling these guys once they decide to spend money, and they don't have to report what they spend," said Rea Howarth, a liberal Catholic activist in Maryland. "They are like feudal lords."
Francis J. Butler, who heads a consortium of Catholic foundations that donates hundreds of millions each year and does polling about Catholics' philanthropic habits, said the center's difficulties reflect financial troubles that Catholic institutions are facing nationwide.
In the midst of this, he said, Catholics are losing the sense of what the denomination's values are and what it has contributed to the country. Now is just the time for an institution such as the Pope John Paul II Center to explain Catholicism's relevance, he said.
"There is a place for the John Paul Center -- to tell this enormous history of Catholic life that we're losing because no one is providing a cultural center like this," Butler said. Maida's effort "was not a trivial endeavor," he added. "I think his fellow bishops ought to join him and rally up to him."