Diocese sees more financial woes, to offer 1,800 buyouts

Parishioners pray during a ceremony at St. Agnes Parishioners pray during a ceremony at St. Agnes Cathedral. (June 14, 2008) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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Almost 100 of 133 Roman Catholic parishes in the Diocese of Rockville Centre are expected to lose money this year, based on a diocesan analysis that shows more financial problems than initially reported a few weeks ago.

The Long Island diocese also increased the number of employees being offered buyout packages from 1,500 to 1,800. That amounts to nearly one-third of its workforce of 6,000 - a figure one nationally recognized church finances expert called "eye-popping" and "unheard-of."

Two weeks ago, the diocese said about 66 parishes operated in the red. But that figure was based on self-reporting by the parishes, said diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan. The diocese's own analysis came up with the figure of close to 100 expected to lose money this year. Last year, 96 parishes operated in the red.

Dolan said offering voluntary separation packages "is always difficult, but we're doing it in a very compassionate manner."

Diocesan officials offered a variety of reasons for the financial troubles: investment losses amid the recession; declining Mass attendance and donations; increasing expenses for payroll, health care and pensions; and building maintenance on aging infrastructure. Dolan said the buyouts are expected to cost the diocese "several million dollars," depending on how many employees accept them.

VIDEO: Charles Trunz, COO of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, explains the organization's plan to re-evaluate programs. Click here to watch

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The diocese expanded the buyout offers after recalculating how many are eligible following the program's launch in the last few weeks, Dolan said. The diocese, home to 1.5 million Catholics, is one of the largest employers on Long Island.

The diocese says it hopes to keep providing high-quality services to parishioners through more efficient operations and by allowing former employees to return as volunteers.

"Currently, many of our parishes and schools are financially sound," Bishop William Murphy wrote in his weekly column in The Long Island Catholic this week. "However, an alarming number are currently struggling to stay viable. Current analysis shows that up to 100 parishes in the Diocese of Rockville Centre either have or shortly will have operating deficits."

Murphy added that some parishes have dipped into cash reserves to pay employees and subsidize their schools. The diocese does not have a targeted number of jobs to shed to meet budget goals, Dolan said. Employees have until late March to decide whether to accept the package.

Economics professor Charles Zeck, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University's School of Business, said Monday he is not aware of any U.S. diocese offering buyouts to employees on the scale pursued by Rockville Centre.

"I've never seen anybody doing it at that level," Zeck said. "To have that many people reduced in one fell swoop like that, it's unheard-of."

He called the 1,800 figure "eye-popping" and said "they must have some serious financial problems to be doing something of this magnitude."

Ordinarily "the Church is really reluctant to let people go," he said. "They are a faith-based organization and Catholic social teaching tells us to be very careful about reducing employment for people."

DIOCESE OF ROCKVILLE CENTRE

Parishes in the diocese expected to operate in the red this year: nearly 100

Employees being offered buyout packages (out of 6,000): 1,800

Roman Catholics on Long Island: 1.5 million

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