An investigation, published this week, reveals that the Catholic Church in Australia concealed its massive wealth when it gave evidence at major inquiries into child sexual abuse.
In reality, according to this report, the church is worth tens of billions of dollars, making it one of the country’s biggest non-government property owners. At the same time is receives billions in government subsidies, and is exempt from almost all forms of taxation.
A six-month investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald found that the church misled the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse by grossly undervaluing its properties in both NSW and Victoria while warning that increased payments to abuse victims would require cuts to its social programmes.
The investigation was based on intricate data from local councils that showed that across 36 municipalities – including nearly all of metropolitan Melbourne – the church had land and buildings worth almost $7 billion in 2016.
Extrapolated nationally, using conservative assumptions, the church owns property worth more than $30 billion Australia-wide.
Said Helen Last, Chief Executive of the In Good Faith Foundation:
These figures confirm what we have known; there is huge inequity between the Catholic Church’s wealth and their responses to survivors.
The 600 survivors registered for our Foundation’s services continue to experience minimal compensation and lack of comprehensive care in relation to their Church abuses. They say their needs are the lowest of church priorities.
The Herald’s findings come in the wake of the Royal Commission’s final report in December and raises serious new questions about the church’s decades-long bid to protect its assets and minimise compensation payments.
They also call into question the privileges the church enjoys, including billions of dollars in government funding each year to run services, exemptions from almost all forms of taxation, and minimal public accountability.
Monetary payments to abuse survivors have averaged just $49,000 under Towards Healing, the national compensation system established by the church in 1996.
The church has other investments, including in superannuation, telecommunications and in the stock-market. A Church-owned fund manager has more than $1.4 billion under management.
A Sydney Archdiocese spokeswoman said the church was “more than just buildings” and was significantly involved in providing pastoral care and “social infrastructure”, including schooling, education, healthcare and welfare services.
It is principally its people and their works. It cares for the most disadvantaged and is a voice for the voiceless. It provides most of these things for our whole society, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. If the Church wasn’t doing it, who would?
The church is notoriously secretive about, and protective of, its wealth. Church leaders have repeatedly publicly underestimated church wealth and resisted greater financial accountability.
Documents provided to the Royal Commission show that the Sydney Archdiocese valued its properties at historic cost, that is the amount paid for properties when originally bought, often in the 1800s or early 1900s.
The figures provided by the Archdiocese, which disclosed about $1 billion in assets, also excluded the value of schools and local parishes, vastly understating its true wealth.
The Archdiocese spokeswoman did not respond directly to a question on whether it had under-stated its wealth to the royal commission but said it had complied with the law.
As a charitable organisation it is important to remember we hold most assets for missionary purposes, not for profit. It seems there are some who see the Catholic Church merely through the prism of assets and property, reporting and regulation.
The Melbourne Archdiocese also undervalued its property to the Royal Commission, and in 2013 failed altogether to provide assets information requested by a state parliamentary inquiry.