A group of lawmakers in Massachusetts is trying to press the Roman Catholic Church to open its financial books, an unprecedented step in the scandal over pedophile priests.
Under a proposed law, the state's churches would need to disclose the health of their finances, a move resisted by religious leaders, who say it contravenes the separation of church and state enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
The proposal, debated this week in the chambers and corridors of Boston, follows a sexual abuse crisis that began receiving wide publicity in 2002. Since then, some U.S. dioceses have been forced to file for bankruptcy protection from lawsuits by abuse victims seeking millions of dollars.
The Boston Archdiocese, squeezed by the cost of settlements with nearly 1,000 sex-abuse victims, has shut more than 60 churches to raise money, triggering protests by churchgoers and prompting questions over how the Church is using its donations from Sunday Mass and other sources.
"We want to know what they do with the donations, what property they own and what is their debt," said Marian Walsh, a lawmaker who drafted the proposal and presented it Wednesday to the state's legislature.
"How can you tell your flock that they don't have a right to know what happens to their donations?"
The proposal, backed by 35 lawmakers and Massachusetts' secretary of state, must be approved by a lawmaking committee before the legislature votes on it next month. The state's governor, Mitt Romney (R), has promised to consider the bill, a stand seen by some as surprising for a devout Mormon who recently staked out conservative positions on such sensitive social issues as abortion ahead of a likely presidential bid.
The national scandal first erupted in Massachusetts in 2002 and then spread to other U.S. dioceses, prompting a drop in donations at churches across the country. The move to force the church to open its books in Boston is driven in part by the size of the settlement -- $86 million -- paid by the archdiocese to settle claims over abuse by priests.
"It's no accident that this is happening in Boston," said Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology and religion at Boston University. "The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Boston public is a very contentious one."
Romney's promise to consider the bill surprised the sponsors.
"We were expecting a veto right off the bat from him," said Tim Lyons, Walsh's legislative aide. "I think it's getting a lot of support."
The Massachusetts Council of Churches, representing 1,700 non-Catholic congregations, said that the Constitution protects church freedoms and that regularly compiling and releasing financial statements would put a strain on church volunteers.
"This is an issue of religious liberty," said Laura Everett, a program associate at the council who called the bill "excessive influence by the government."
"We're opposing it," she said.
A conservative Christian group, the Massachusetts Family Institute, and the Catholic Action League also have made a stand against the bill.
Some see the legislation as a test of how much influence Boston's archdiocese -- the nation's fourth-largest -- still wields in a region known historically for deep political roots in the Roman Catholic Church.
Lyons said Massachusetts passed a law in 1930 that called on churches and charities to open their financial books, but that law differed because it was not enforced and lacked teeth. Churches were made exempt in 1954.
"It seems to be that in 1954, the Church had a lot of clout," he added.