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Diocese employees facing buyouts 'mistrust' church

Rose Dillon is the director of religious education

Rose Dillon is the director of religious education at St. Dominic parish in Oyster Bay. (March 3, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

Rose Dillon has spent nearly 20 years working for the Diocese of Rockville Centre and says for her it was always more about the mission than the money.

Now the director of religious education at St. Dominic parish in Oyster Bay says she feels betrayed as the diocese offers buyout packages to her and 1,800 other employees. Diocesan officials say the offer of six to nine months' severance pay is "generous," but Dillon, 58, doesn't see it that way.

"I feel my work as a person is very diminished in the eyes of the church," she said. "I was always one of those who felt I had a ministry. Now I feel I have a job. . . . There is no difference between corporate America and the church right now."

One month after the diocese unveiled its reorganization plan, and two weeks before people need to indicate whether they will take a buyout, employees and parishioners are still absorbing the idea. There's anger, confusion, sadness, worry, mistrust, and even hope that the financial crisis can be overcome.

 

Sending shock waves

Diocesan officials don't dispute that the plan is sending shock waves through one of the largest and wealthiest dioceses in the country. Spokesman Sean Dolan said the diocese, spiritual home to 1.5 million Catholics and one of the largest employers on Long Island, is doing its best to act compassionately amid a financial crisis with no easy solutions.

"Any time you go through a change of this magnitude, some people are going to be upset," Dolan said.

Among the reactions in the past few weeks, a priest in Medford, the Rev. Edward Kealey of St. Sylvester's parish, distributed to parishioners a letter titled "Economics - A Dismal Science in Rockville Centre." He says he's received many e-mails and phone calls supporting him.

And now, for the first time, the diocese says layoffs are possible down the road, even if all eligible employees accept the buyout. The diocese hasn't said how much money it wants to save, or how many jobs it wants to trim. As one sign of the situation, however, it has said that 100 of the 133 parishes are expected to lose money this year.

 

Where the diocese stands

For the past month the diocese has been holding town hall-style informational meetings for employees. It has dispatched Charles Trunz III, its chief operating officer and a former high-level executive at JPMorgan, to explain the plan and the diocese's fiscal woes. The diocese has received a flood of e-mails at its headquarters and calls to a special hotline set up for the buyout.

Bishop William Murphy has met with pastors to hear their concerns and issued his own public comments. They include a column last Wednesday in The Long Island Catholic newspaper in which he wrote that the retooling was necessary to ensure the ability of the church to continue offering pastoral services.

Donations are remaining flat while expenses for insurance, pensions, medical premiums and other items are increasing. "Not to attempt to address these and related issues . . . would be an abdication of my responsibility to you and your children and grandchildren," Murphy wrote.

The turbulence appeared to extend to diocesan headquarters last week, as officials made the surprise announcement on Friday that Trunz was leaving his post because he had "accomplished his goals."

Dolan said the diocese expects less than half of eligible employees to take the buyout package. Whether layoffs are imposed will depend on how much money is saved through buyouts and other reductions, he added.

"I can't make a promise there won't be any layoffs," Dolan said.

He said the diocese is listening to the feedback from employees and parishioners - positive and negative alike - and adjusting its plan. For instance, it has decided to allow secretaries and janitors in schools to remain on the job until the end of June, rather than the end of March, if they take the buyout.

 

'A tremendous loss'

But those kinds of gestures haven't always eased the anxieties of employees. At an informational meeting for parish workers held at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville and attended by Dillon, one of the words heard over and over was "mistrust."

Dennis Frawley, a lifelong Catholic, said he believes the plan will undermine parishes' abilities to function, and that business experts, like himself, on parish finance committees were never consulted to come up with less radical alternatives.

"I've been around priests all my life, and I've been around the church all my life, and it's absolutely disgraceful the way this is being handled," said Frawley, 47, a parishioner at St. Barnabas parish in Bellmore.

Marie McNally, director of stewardship and ministries at St. Sylvester's whose duties include overseeing 1,200 volunteers, said news of the buyout and of the diocese's financial woes was a shock. "It caught us off guard. It came out of the blue."

Still, she said that after much soul-searching she is leaning toward taking the package - in part, because if she stays, she fears her job may be cut anyway.

"In my head it makes sense to [take the buyout], and in my heart I feel it's unjust to parish life," said McNally, who is in her 60s. "Emotionally I'm not ready to retire. If I take it, I am leaving the parish I love. This was me, and this was an extension of my faith, and I feel a tremendous loss."
 

Diocese of Rockville Centre

 

The diocese has sent 1,800 buyout packages to employees in an effort to reduce its expenses. Here is a sampling of some of the groups affected.

 

By job title

 

Teachers: 548

Principals: 18

Directors or coordinators of Social Ministries: 55

 

By work location or department

 

Catholic cemeteries: 44

Pastoral Center/Rockville Centre diocesan headquarters: 67

Long Island Catholic newspaper: 15

Telecare (the diocese cable TV station): 8

Source: Diocese of Rockville Centre

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