The annual fundraising drive in the nearby Arlington Diocese is still named the Bishop’s Appeal, and it took in $17,202,000 in 2019, down from $18,400,000 in 2018 but up from previous years. The diocese, which covers northeastern Virginia, has about one-third fewer Catholics than the Archdiocese of Washington.
National numbers are not available, as many dioceses do not make public their full philanthropic data. Experts say they hear anecdotally that giving nationally has fallen since the revelation of major church scandals in Washington in 2018, which were followed by a scandal in West Virginia and a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that detailed in a new way abuse and coverups from decades ago. Those who monitor church scandals had been watching to see whether Catholics in Washington, an affluent, healthy and high-profile archdiocese, would express their frustration by reducing giving.
Unlike in the early 2000s, when the clergy sex abuse crisis became ongoing national news and donations were affected everywhere, experts say that today, the financial impact of church scandals is much more localized.
Washington Catholics have been hit hard emotionally in the past two years, first by the fall of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a giant in the archdiocese who was accused of sexually abusing children and adults. Next came the early retirement as archbishop of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who lied about knowing that McCarrick had been accused of sexual harassment.
Last year, Michael Bransfield, a former longtime leader of the city’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception who had become the bishop in West Virginia, was banned from public ministry after a church investigation accused him of sexually harassing younger clerics and spending millions in church money on a lavish lifestyle.
Joseph Gillmer, the executive director of development for the Washington archdiocese, said 2019 was the most challenging environment in the appeal’s 50-year history because of several factors, of which “the anger and disappointment” at church leadership was just one.
Seven months elapsed between the Vatican’s acceptance of Wuerl’s retirement and the naming of the current leader, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, creating an uncertainty that Gillmer feels is the biggest factor that affected the appeal.
Gillmer also noted the 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government that ended in January 2019 and fallout from a 2017 Trump tax code change that doubled the standard deduction everyone gets and resulted in a national drop in charitable giving. After Gregory was named, Gillmer said, giving to the appeal in the second half of 2019 outperformed the second halves of 2016, 2017 and 2018.
“We need to continue to demonstrate the impact of contributions and earn the right to be worthy of the philanthropic support of the faithful,” he wrote in an emailed response to questions. “We must continue to be transparent, accountable and good stewards of charitable support. ... It is only through proactive, one-by-one engagement with the faithful that we will earn the trust necessary to be the recipient of future support.”
Angie Boggs, 72, a retired hospital clinical ethicist from Reston, Va., said she changed her giving patterns last year because she felt the church was insufficiently transparent. She no longer gives to Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief — major projects of the U.S. Catholic Church — instead using an online charity assessment tool to find groups that do similar work but have “really good transparency and a high percentage goes to programs.”
She still donates to her parish but never gives cash and specifies on her checks the purpose for which she wants the money to be used — such as salaries or utilities.
She had stopped giving to the Bishop’s Appeal years earlier because of what she sees as insufficient transparency.
“When everything is behind closed doors, it’s a black box. I feel morally I need to make sure I’m doing the best I can to make sure my money doesn’t go to support things I’m against,” she said, such as lobbying against efforts to allow clergy abuse victims to sue, or responding to abuse allegations by moving priests around.
John T. Butler, a former head of development for the Archdiocese of Washington, said another big factor in U.S. Catholic giving in general is that younger Catholics aren’t automatically giving to the church the way their parents and grandparents did.
In Washington’s archdiocese, Butler said, “the issue around McCarrick was a big one. People felt strongly about that. And reacted strongly.”
Charles Zech, an expert on Catholic Church financial management and the founder of the Center for Church Management at Villanova University, said the drop in fundraising in the Archdiocese of Washington was significant. He said it is common when Catholics are angry about an issue to cut back first at the level of the diocese, affecting programs such as the appeal, and later at the parish level.
“My first reaction is that this is the McCarrick factor. The archdiocese doesn’t look good with respect to that. That’s discouraging,” he said.
Patrick Markey of the national Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference said he has heard anecdotally that giving overall in dioceses is hurting, but he did not have specifics. Markey, the conference’s executive director, noted that some places have huge appeals for specific projects for which they often can attract several major donors. Such appeals are happening in Phoenix, Chicago and Oklahoma City. However, he said the traditional annual appeals are a much better barometer of the sentiments of the average Catholic.
Such fundraising efforts, often called the Bishop’s Appeal or the Cardinal’s Appeal, do not fund dioceses’ operational expenses; they are meant to fund specific projects that are spelled out in advance.
Gillmer said the Annual Appeal was hit harder than other initiatives in Washington’s archdiocese. Total contributions (including the Annual Appeal) in fiscal 2019 were $16,449,420, compared with $18,748,663 in fiscal 2018 and $21,869,000 in fiscal 2017.
Separately, he noted that attendance at Mass is not down and that other efforts, including the Retired Priests Collection, are doing better.
“I thought that would take a major hit, having the word ‘priest’ in there,” he said. “The appeal is down but other things are not, which tells me people have not given up on the church’s good works.”
The Diocese of Arlington includes 453,000 Catholics in 70 parishes. Washington has 655,000 Catholics in 139 parishes.