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Catholic Church wins $1.4B in aid

Analysis of data shows funds going to dioceses embroiled in abuse cover-ups

NEW YORK — 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.

In central Pennsylvania, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown was approved for a Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $350,000 and $1 million, according to a listing of loans released by the U.S. Small Business Administration of awards of $150,000 or more.

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, and various parishes and schools in the diocese applied for and received funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, diocese spokesman Tony DeGol said.

The diocese, parishes, and schools are using all monies received from the program for payroll expenses to keep essential workers employed so that we can continue the mission of the Church,” DeGol said in an email.

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 program and marshaling resources to 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 list shows 240 loans approved in Blair County, mostly to a wide range of businesses, professional offices and organizations.

Businesses and organizations could apply and be approved for PPP funds and later return the money and opt out.

DeGol added in the early months of the pandemic, public Masses in the local diocese were not celebrated and in-person classes at schools were canceled. “Without parishioners in the pews, we did not know what to expect regarding a regular offertory. We were also concerned that many families who were struggling financially would be unable to pay tuition. Most fundraisers that help support parishes and schools were also halted.

“Regardless of the financial challenges we were facing, we knew the good work of the Church had to continue. Our buildings were not open, but the Church never closed. Priests celebrated private Masses – many of which were broadcast on television or live-streamed; priests buried the dead and anointed the gravely ill; Catholic education continued virtually; and Catholic Charities served individuals and families – especially those in need during these challenging times,ã DeGol sID.

“In order for us to continue the ministry and mission of the Church, we need people, and we need to be able to pay those people so they can earn a living. We already operate with a very slim staff, so every worker is essential. Thanks to the assistance of the PPP, we have been able to fulfill our obligation to provide for the spiritual well-being of our faithful, educate our youth, and care for the needy and vulnerable among us – all at a time when it is needed the most.”

The SBA list also shows Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School and Holy Trinity Catholic School in Blair County and Bishop McCort in Johnstown, which operate independently of the diocese, each received PPP loans between $150,000 and $350,000. Penn Mont Academy in Hollidaysburg, which isn’t connected to the Catholic church, was granted a similar amount.

Mount Aloysius College in Cresson received a $2 million to $5 million award.

In Blair County, Garvey Manor, which operates separately from the diocese, was granted a $1 million to $2 million award, as was Maybrook Hills Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center. The Village at Morrisons Cove in Martinsburg was approved for a loan between $2 million and $5 million.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Altoona was also approved for an award between $150,000 and $350,000.

Archdiocese of New York gets $28M

The Archdiocese of New York 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.

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.

Religious groups sought break in rule

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 — they exceed the 500-person cap.

“That favoritism was worth billions of dollars,” said Micah Schwartzman, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in constitutional issues and religion who has studied the Paycheck Protection Program.

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

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.

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