(TMU) – The U.S. Roman Catholic Church used its lobbying clout to amass anywhere between $1.4 billion and $3.5 billion in taxpayer-funded coronavirus aid for small churches, with millions being funneled toward dioceses that have paid massive settlements and filed for bankruptcy due to clergy sexual abuse cover-ups.
On Monday, the U.S. Small Business Administration released the names of the hundreds of thousands of companies that were bailed out under the $659 billion Paycheck Protection Program, the emergency loan program established to keep small businesses afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to an analysis of the agency’s data, The Associated Press (AP) found that at least 3,500 forgivable loans were granted to Catholic dioceses, parishes, school, nonprofits, and other ministries – making the Catholic Church one of the major winners of the pandemic relief program.
At a minimum, the church received $1.4 billion in aid, but the church could have received as much as $3.5 billion. The true figure, however, could be far higher due to the amount of loans that were not accounted for in the list released Monday.
Among those receiving aid was the Archdiocese of New York, which received 15 loans totaling at least $28 million for its top executive offices alone.
In Orange County, California, diocesan officials received four loans worth at least $3 million. The diocese recently opened a lavish glass cathedral believed to have cost over $70 million.
Another loan of at least $20 million was given to a West Virginia diocese where the church found last year that then-Bishop Michael Bransfield had been embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in church funds and sexually harassing young priests.
While the pandemic and accompanying social distancing and stay-at-home orders impacted the revenue of religious institutions across the United States, scores of dioceses have also suffered financially following the exposure of patterns of sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church.
Following the tidal wave of scandal that struck the church in 2018, the church faced a tripling of sexual abuse reports in the year ending June 2019 that totaled 4,500 across the U.S. In the meantime, Catholic entities paid out $282 million, mostly in settlements, legal fees, and support for clergy who engaged in the sexual crimes.
Recipients of the coronavirus aid include roughly 40 dioceses that have been spilling out hundreds of millions in payments to victims through compensation funds or bankruptcy proceedings. AP found that these dioceses received at least $200 million, although the true number is believed to be higher.
However, the church’s Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference (DFMC) said in May that 9,000 Catholic entities have received loans. According to the DFMC, some 13,000 out of the total 17,000 churches applied for the small business loans.
The Catholic Church was certainly not the only major religious group or entity to receive taxpayer-funded pandemic aid under program, which also went toward evangelical mega-churches and televangelists. Evangelical advisers to President Donald Trump like White House spiritual czar Paula White-Cain were also rewarded loans.
While religious organizations are typically exempt from Small Business Administration loans, the Trump administration has been especially close to the Religious Right and allowed groups to exploit a new loophole following heavy lobbying.
“The government grants special dispensation, and that creates a kind of structural favoritism,” said University of Virginia law professor Micah Schwartzman, who specializes in constitutional issues surrounding religion. “And that favoritism was worth billions of dollars.”
The Paycheck Protection Program has generated controversy over the past weeks as it has been revealed that large companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s, among others, have received aid through the program. Controversially, aid has also gone toward companies backed by lawmakers and celebrities like Dr. Phil, and groups described as “hate groups” including anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBTQ organizations.
However, the new revelations about the scale of money handed to the Catholic Church raises fresh questions about the extent to which the wall separating church and state under the First Amendment has eroded under the Trump administration, especially as religious groups that don’t pay taxes are allowed to dip into public funds.
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