A photograph of a priest holding up a hand full of money

Superwealthy churches absurdly say they can’t pay for all the harm they’ve caused

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By Ryan Jayne
FFRF Action Fund staff attorney

It’s no secret that religion is great for making money — convincing people they are sick and selling an invisible cure is basically pure profit. 

The Vatican’s opulence is legendary. The Mormon church has allegedly built up around $100 billion in hidden assets. Scientology continued to rake in untold amounts of money even as membership has reportedly plummeted. Considering how much these giant church conglomerates have spent on real estate and proselytizing, in addition to simply hoarding cash, the conclusion seems simple: They have long had more money than they know what to do with.

And yet, a curious trend has emerged when churches are forced to consider the cost of paying damages to victims of their abuse: Surveying the damage they’ve done, many large churches have run to bankruptcy court arguing that they can’t possibly come up with the funds to give even a semblance of justice to survivors. 

In August, the Archdiocese of San Francisco filed for bankruptcy after reportedly facing more than 500 lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse by church officials. Two other California dioceses, in Santa Rosa and Oakland, did the same earlier this year. This follows a 2019 California law that temporarily allowed survivors to bring previously barred claims. Last month, the Archdiocese of Baltimore declared bankruptcy on the eve of a similar law becoming effective.

These bankruptcies show two things. First, these churches have no choice but to publicly acknowledge that they have caused more harm than they can ever hope to mend (keeping in mind that no amount of money can undo this type of damage). Second, even facing the immeasurable harm resulting from a culture of secrecy, the underlying problem remains: While always insisting that clergy abuse is a problem of the past, the church’s top priorities remain their bank account and their reputation. 

Amid hollow sympathies for survivors and promises of greater transparency, churches remain committed to secrecy. The Southern Baptist Convention recently asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to invalidate a law providing a cause of action for its past victims, after a 2022 bombshell report detailed the church’s pattern of abuse and cover-up. And in Wisconsin, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which settled its bankruptcy in 2015, is currently fighting the state’s attempt to confidentially review sealed documents from that case to corroborate a list of abusers from the church. The cover-up seems never-ending as churches fight for secrecy at every turn. That culture of secrecy fosters more abuse, and the cycle continues. 

Clergy abuse is a longstanding ongoing worldwide problem. A recent report on Catholic clergy abuse in Spain concluded that the number of victims could be hundreds of thousands. This is only the latest in a long list of shocking reports — and it will not be the last. 

Unlike many for-profit businesses where filing for bankruptcy is essentially the company’s final action, for many wealthy churches bankruptcy is primarily a way to avoid paying survivors what they would otherwise be entitled to under the law. The churches will endure — so long as churches have congregants, the money for their invisible product will continue to flow, and with that cash comes an incentive to continue covering up abuse. This problem cannot be adequately solved until fostering abuse becomes a bad business decision for churches, which requires congregants to condition their donations on total transparency and cooperation with secular authorities to hold abusers accountable. 

Anything short of threatening a church’s bottom line will be ineffective.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Jayne received a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Honors College in 2007. He attended law school at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Ore., where he served as an associate editor for the Animal Law Review at Lewis & Clark and co-founding the Pacific Northwest’s first Secular Legal Society. Ryan graduated cum laude in 2015, began working with FFRF in January of 2015, and became a Diane Uhl Legal Fellow in September 2015, specializing in faith-based government funding. Ryan is an FFRF Action Fund staff attorney.

FFRF Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that develops and advocates for legislation, regulations and government programs to preserve the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It also advocates for the rights and views of nonbelievers, endorses candidates for political office, and publicizes the views of elected officials concerning religious liberty issues.

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