For example, the AP reports that the Archdiocese of Chicago “had more than $1 billion in cash and investments in its headquarters and cemetery division as of May ,” while at the same time “Chicago’s parishes, schools and ministries accumulated at least $77 million in paycheck protection funds.”
The story implies that a fund specifically earmarked for cemeteries could somehow be repurposed to pay for salaries— a legal and practical impossibility, Pietrzyk said.
"You can't, either in civil or canon law, simply move those funds around contrary to the wishes of the donor," he said.
"The diocese can't simply scoop out the cemetery fund to start paying salaries for schoolteachers. That would be fraud...they could be liable for prosecution for something like that."
The AP story includes quotes from an anonymous pastor in “a Western state” as well as Fr. James Connell, former vice chancellor of the Milwaukee archdiocese, who asserted that “Catholic entities did not need government aid” and should have instead, out of love of neighbor, left the funds for small businesses to use.
Part of the reason for their assertions was the fact that many dioceses did not experience the catastrophic downturn in assets that many expected in 2020, thanks in part to a healthy rebounding of the stock market.
The investments made by many Catholic entities turned out to be safer than they could have been, Pietrzyk said, with the stock market largely recovering since the start of the pandemic. But "nobody knew that in June."
"To say that the Church should not have taken that money in June because things are really rosy [next] January is absurd," he asserted.
Catholic financial experts have recommended to CNA in the past that parishes and dioceses especially well-prepared for a crisis ought to consider calling up struggling parishes or dioceses voluntarily to offer to share resources.
That being said, the AP story displays "incredible 20/20 hindsight," Pietrzyk noted, and seems to gloss over the uncertainty of the period in which the PPP program first launched.
"There was a nationwide sense of panic within the Church at the time these funds were available. No vaccine in sight, didn't know how long the pandemic would go on, everything was being shut down. Initial numbers from dioceses were that donations were way down, as people themselves were uncertain about their future."
At that time, a massive reorganization of Church assets was not possible, legally and practically. Without another immediate source of income, especially for small parishes without much reserves, large-scale firings of church employees could have taken place, Pietrzyk said.
By the AP’s own admission, dioceses reported that their hardest-hit churches saw income drop by 40% or more before donations began to rebound months later, and schools took hits when fundraisers were canceled and families had trouble paying tuition.
The purpose of the PPP, in part, was to relieve the nation's unemployment system and keep people employed, and evidence shows that it likely succeeded. Economists working with the Treasury Department’s Office of Economic Policy said in December that the PPP may have saved about 18.6 million US jobs.
Even with PPP money, some dioceses, such as San Francisco’s, still had to cut salaries— but, as the PPP intended, did not have to resort to mass firings.
The AP does not cite any evidence that “Catholic entities” unjustly took money away from more deserving candidates. Catholic entities, taken as a whole, appear to have received, at most, about 0.6% of the funds so far disbursed from the PPP program.
Guidance from the SBA on eligibility for the loans stated that “no otherwise eligible organization will be disqualified from receiving a loan because of the religious nature, religious identity, or religious speech of the organization.”
PPP funds are still available for businesses that need them, albeit with more restrictions than in previous rounds. All told, with Congress adding $284 billion to the program in December, the PPP program is expected to eventually disburse nearly $1 trillion in loans.
Another implication from the AP story worth refuting, Pietrzyk said, is that nonprofit, tax-exempt entities are somehow less deserving of government largess.
It makes sense to allow nonprofits access to PPP funds, he said, because PPP was intended to cover worker's salaries— workers who pay income tax.
The PPP loans did not directly enrich the nonprofit entities that received them, but rather went straight to the employees. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York noted this fact in a letter he released following the AP's July 2020 story. The archdiocese, as well as many of the archdioceses' parishes, had received PPP loans.
"Make no mistake, the money that the Archdiocese of New York received was used solely for the purposes outlined in the law, that is to continue to pay employees their salaries and benefits. Not one penny of that money was used in any way to settle lawsuits or pay victim-survivors of abuse.
"We have none of this money left. It has all be [sic] distributed to our workers, and the government is carefully auditing it."
Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, chair of the US bishops’ committee on domestic justice, also wrote a response to the July AP story, defending the use of the PPP by Catholic parishes, hospitals, schools, dioceses, and social service agencies.
“The Paycheck Protection Program was designed to protect the jobs of Americans from all walks of life, regardless of whether they work for for-profit or non-profit employers, faith-based or secular,” Archbishop Coakley wrote.
“The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental supplier of social services in the United States. Each year, our parishes, schools and ministries serve millions of people in need, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. The novel coronavirus only intensified the needs of the people we serve and the demand for our ministries. The loans we applied for enabled our essential ministries to continue to function in a time of national emergency.”
“In addition, shutdown orders and economic fallout associated with the virus have affected everyone, including the thousands of Catholic ministries -- churches, schools, healthcare and social services -- that employ about 1 million people in the United States,” Coakley added.
“These loans have been an essential lifeline to keep hundreds of thousands of employees on payroll, ensure families maintain their health insurance, and enable lay workers to continue serving their brothers and sisters during this crisis.”