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Phoenix Sex Abuse Survivors Condemn Catholic Church PPP Loans

Saint Mary's Basilica sits next to the Diocese of Phoenix.EXPAND
Saint Mary's Basilica sits next to the Diocese of Phoenix.
Stuart Warner

The Roman Catholic Church in Arizona received at least $15.65 million in federal COVID-19 aid meant for small businesses, and local survivors of abuse by priests are not happy about it.

"Last week, I was in a rage for two days," said Mary O'Day, head of the 500-member-strong Phoenix chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), "but I've calmed down since."

The Associated Press reports that the Catholic Church has received over $1.4 billion nationally after lobbying Congress to add a loophole specifically for religious organizations that otherwise wouldn't have qualified because they had over 500 affiliated employees.

The national dollar amount includes schools and charities operated by the Catholic Church. It also includes a "treatment center" the church sent abusive priests to and several dioceses facing bankruptcy due to abuse cases that sued the government to be included in the program.

O'Day said the amount the church was able to accomplish in a short time when it came to getting money does not compare favorably to its pace on addressing its legacy of sexual misconduct.

She said it's especially ridiculous considering that United States churches are tax-exempt. While dioceses and parishes are individually incorporated, they are organized as part of a hierarchical church with a huge number of assets spanning the globe — including its own country.

The money the Catholic Church went after and received, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, was designed to incentivize small businesses to maintain employees. The loans can be forgiven if certain conditions
are met, such as using them to rehire employees and pay rent.

The U.S. Small Business Administration, which issued the loans, only released a range of the amounts each organization received, but at a bare minimum, Catholic parishes and schools in the Valley received $11.75 million, with an additional $2 million to $5 million going to the church's local social services wing, according to a database maintained by the nonprofit news operation ProPublica.

While the Phoenix Diocese didn't take a Paycheck Protection Program loan directly, its flagship Saints Simon and Jude Cathedral received between $350,000 and $1 million.

All told, Phoenix New Times identified at least 41 Catholic Church affiliates across the state that received funds, including the Diocese of Tucson, which was listed as a television station in the data.

Robert Pastor, a local attorney who's handling several church sex abuse cases, said survivors usually grow up believing in the church, making the abuse they suffer and the resulting cover-up a betrayal of trust. Pastor said he talks to survivors who see the church taking public money and think, "Just like you took advantage of me as a kid, you're taking advantage of us by taking this money and not being transparent."

A statue of Pope John Paul II welcomes visitors to the Diocese of Phoenix.EXPAND
A statue of Pope John Paul II welcomes visitors to the Diocese of Phoenix.
Stuart Warner

O'Day said SNAP has over 50,000 members nationally. Some may be small business owners who struggled to get loans of their own, she said. The PPP money initially allocated by congress quickly ran out, and those without existing relationships with banks were left in the dust.

"Now their tax dollars are going to help this wealthy church without them even knowing it," O'Day said.

Many other large entities like Shake Shack and Harvard University received PPP funding, due in part to pre-existing relationships with banks who shepherded their applications through. There's evidence the local Catholic Church benefited similarly: many local parishes and Catholic schools received their money through Notre Dame Federal Credit Union, a member of the Catholic Credit Union Association.

In 2004, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson was the second diocese in the nation to file for bankruptcy, seeking legal protection in the face of lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse. Pastor, the attorney, said the move protected them financially but also blocked future lawsuits that would have offered survivors greater transparency and accountability. He's had clients who have since wanted to file suit against the diocese for the abuse they suffered and have been unable to as a result, he said.

Until the Phoenix Diocese was created in 1969, much of Arizona was the responsibility of the Diocese of Tucson. O'Day said the Phoenix chapter includes members who were abused by church employees under the Tucson Diocese's watch, including a member who was abused by the same priest as her, but when the priest was employed by the Tucson Diocese.

O'Day said she would like to see the government impose additional transparency requirements on the Catholic Church in exchange for the money it took. Pastor said that if the Catholic Church wanted to be truly transparent, it could open up archives and release more information about priests removed from public life but assigned to a life of prayer and penance — a designation that allows them to continue their benefits without interacting with the public.

Arizona has a long history of abuse by Catholic Church employees. In the early 2000s, Phoenix's former bishop admitted to systemically covering up abuse cases. Last summer, a law firm compiled a list of priests that the Catholic Church had found to have been credibly accused of abuse and who had ties to the state. ProPublica has a searchable national database of priests the Catholic Church has determined were credibly accused of abuse.

While the abuse occurred decades ago in many cases, the fallout continues to this day. In January, a former priest was indicted in Maricopa County for abusing children in the 2000s. Under a fiercely-fought law passed last year, survivors over the age of 30 have until the end of this year to pursue legal action.

O'Day worries that shoring up the Catholic Church's finances with public dollars will just give them greater resources to resist her group's efforts.

"They throw all their money behind protecting their priests and their wealth," she said. "...I just get frazzled."

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A Phoenix Diocese spokesperson did not reply to messages seeking more information about the PPP money's usage.

Linda Welter, CEO of the Caliber Group public relations firm used by the Tucson Diocese, insisted New Times provide the name of the SNAP representative we spoke to and the details and dates regarding their criticism in writing — as well as why New Times was interested in a story about a diocese in Pima County — before she would see if the diocese wanted to respond.

When New Times responded the next morning with an outline of who we spoke to and their general comments, she never replied. In response to a follow-up email Friday afternoon, she said that she was unable to locate anyone with the appropriate knowledge to answer our questions.

If you've experienced sexual abuse, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 for confidential support or resources.

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