Once again, AP accuses big Catholic bosses of abusing government coronavirus relief efforts

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There they go again.

In this case, “they” refers to whoever is in charge of religion-news coverage these days at the Associated Press. Someone there needs to take a remedial course in (a) church history, (b) church-state law in the United States or (c) both.

Let’s start by flashing back about six months, when the AP rolled out an investigation of what its editors clearly thought was a scandal of epic proportions. Does anyone remember this lede, and this GetReligion dissection (“AP explains why it was wrong for local-level Catholic employees to get coronavirus relief money“), of the expose)?

NEW YORK (AP) — 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.

That was a bizarre, but honest, opener. The entire story was built on the assumption that there is such a thing — corporately and legally speaking — as a “U.S. Roman Catholic Church.”

As I said at the time, this is “like saying that there is an ‘American Public School System,’ as opposed to complex networks of schools at the local, regional and state levels.” One could also note that there is a Planned Parenthood of America. However, government coronavirus aid in the paycheck-support program went to 37 regional and local Planned Parenthood groups.

The Associated Press has now produced a sequel, with this headline: “Sitting on billions, Catholic dioceses amassed taxpayer aid.” While the editors avoided the “U.S. Roman Catholic Church” label this time around, this lengthy story is built on a similar misunderstanding of what happened when Catholic parishes, schools, nonprofits and other ministries applied for coronavirus aid.

As readers can see in the headline, in the sequel AP leaders focused on finances at the diocesan level, as opposed to a mythical national Catholic structure. This is closer to the truth, but it still misses the mark. While many issues of church authority are linked to local bishops, in local dioceses, the crucial issue here was paycheck-relief money reaching staff members in individual parishes, schools and ministries that had been rocked by falling donations during the COVID-19 crisis. Let’s start with the overture:

When the coronavirus forced churches to close their doors and give up Sunday collections, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte turned to the federal government’s signature small business relief program for more than $8 million.

The diocese’s headquarters, churches and schools landed the help even though they had roughly $100 million of their own cash and short-term investments available last spring, financial records show. When the cash catastrophe church leaders feared didn’t materialize, those assets topped $110 million by the summer. …

As the pandemic began to unfold, scores of Catholic dioceses across the U.S. received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while sitting on well over $10 billion in cash, short-term investments or other available funds, an Associated Press investigation has found. And despite the broad economic downturn, these assets have grown in many dioceses.

Yet even with that financial safety net, the 112 dioceses that shared their financial statements, along with the churches and schools they oversee, collected at least $1.5 billion in taxpayer-backed aid. A majority of these dioceses reported enough money on hand to cover at least six months of operating expenses, even without any new income.

You can see an echo of the earlier “U.S. Roman Catholic Church” logic in this summary paragraph a few lines later:

Overall, the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses, where bishops and cardinals govern, and other Catholic institutions received at least $3 billion. That makes the Roman Catholic Church perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the paycheck program, according to AP’s analysis of data the U.S. Small Business Administration released following a public-records lawsuit by news organizations. The agency for months had shared only partial information, making a more precise analysis impossible.

The first AP expose on this topic produced a wave of criticism from Catholic leaders and legal experts on both the left and the right. That is probably what knocked the bizarre, but honest, “U.S. Roman Catholic Church” reference out of this second feature (while it lived on in the editorial DNA).

Sorry to flashback, again, to the earlier GetReligion piece, but so much of what I wrote then still applies to this sequel. Here is a crucial block of that:

… It was completely valid to do an in-depth report on how Catholic nonprofit groups campaigned to receive coronavirus relief money for their employees — for precisely the same reasons journalists can, and should, investigate similar activities by other huge nonprofits and companies with complex national, regional and local structures. …

The key, once again, is a concept that came up … at the U.S. Supreme Court — “equal access.” Under these legal principles, part of the legacy of a liberal-conservative coalition in the Clinton-Gore years, government entities are supposed to treat religious organizations (think nonprofits) the same way they treat similar secular groups. They can work with all of them (sacred and secular alike) or they can turn all of them down.

They key is that they are treated the same. The bottom line: Religion is not a uniquely dangerous force in American life.

Fair-minded journalists who want more information on this latest AP sermon can, of course, turn to Catholic journalists.

On the Catholic left, there is this from American Magazine: “No, it wasn’t wrong for Catholic parishes to accept Covid relief money from the government.” Here is a chunk of that essay:

To the extent that the church is an institution, however, it “is not a monolith,” as America’s editor in chief, Matt Malone, S.J., wrote, but “a network of affiliated but legally and financially independent institutions. There isn’t a parish in the country that employs more than 500 people on its pastoral staff; and it is the parish, not the diocese, that has to make payroll for the parish staff each month.”

Viewed globally, the church is a multilayered, pluralistic constitution of the laity and priesthood, parishes, dioceses, episcopal conferences, religious orders and lay movements, ordinariates and personal prelatures, the College of Bishops, the College of Cardinals and, of course, the papacy. Not to mention the various charitable organizations that work through and with these entities, including schools, hospitals, homeless shelters and social services centers. However one breaks it down, it is misleading to suggest that one institution called “the Catholic Church” received $1.5 billion.

Meanwhile, there is this Catholic News Agency piece from the, doctrinally speaking, Catholic right. The headline: “Did ‘the Roman Catholic Church’ unjustly collect federal aid? AP story misrepresents Church finances, expert says,”

Also on the right, culturally speaking, there was this National Review Online piece (“The Misleading AP Attack on the Catholic Church for Accepting COVID Relief“) by journalist and canon lawyer J.D. Flynn, who is editor of The Pillar, a new Catholic news and commentary website.

Here’s an essential piece of that commentary:

“Parishes, dioceses, and other Catholic institutions are separately incorporated in civil law. But as PPP rules were being written, it became clear that Catholics entities in proximity to each other, which sometimes have contractual relationships allowing them to centralize infrastructure, were in danger of being inaccurately counted by the Small Business Administration (SBA) as one organization.

Lobbyists for the U.S. bishops’ conference intervened with the SBA to explain that the separate civil organization of Catholic institutions wasn’t just a legal fiction, but was, in fact, a reflection of the Catholic Church’s theological and canonical self-understanding.

The Pillar also produced its own “explainer” on some of the terms used in this debate: “A society, not a monolith: What the Catholic Church is, and is not.

In conclusion, let me make another journalism point.

Much of this new AP story focuses on this question: Why didn’t diocesan leaders spend more of their savings and assets (at the local and regional level) to assist individual parishes and other ministries? After all, there is plenty of evidence of this kind of sharing in the past and in the present.

That’s a valid question, even if AP never pauses to make clear that the same could be asked of a wide variety of religious groups and nonprofits from coast to coast. As I said six months ago:

… Many, many other churches and religious bodies in other denominations and faiths also took part in this program. The national Episcopal Church, for example, shares this basic diocesan structure [as the Catholic church]. Were individual congregations, schools and causes in the Episcopal Church (and other groups) treated differently than their Catholic counterparts?

Let’s continue with the thread. If we ask this question about Episcopalians, why not ask it about other struggling mainline Protestant denominations, such as the (at this point in time) United Methodists? How about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

If independent Protestant congregations (think Baptists with local-church autonomy) had been eligible, while Catholic parishes were not, would that have violated “equal access” principles?

Also, did individual mosques apply for aid, while regional and national Muslim organizations still had their own national endowments and properties that could have been tapped for aid local aid, while avoiding PPP applications? What Jewish groups applied for PPP funds?

If the big idea is that Catholic groups SHOULD have tapped into regional and national resources, to help local parishes, schools, etc., is the Associated Press planning to investigate all of religious and secular nonprofits in which the same dynamic was in play?

Or is the U.S. Roman Catholic Church different? Just asking.

FIRST IMAGE: From the official website of the 2015 papal visit to the United States.

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