Image: Catholics protest
Jessica Hill  /  AP
Catholics gather Wednesday at the state Capitol in Hartford, Conn., to protest legislation, which has already been withdrawn, that would have changed how parish finances are handled.
updated 3/11/2009 8:44:03 PM ET 2009-03-12T00:44:03

Thousands of Roman Catholics descended on the Connecticut statehouse Wednesday, as simmering resentment over bills they consider anti-Catholic reached a boiling point with a recent legislative attempt to give parishioners more say over parish financing.

The sponsors of the now-withdrawn proposal, both Catholics themselves, have received thousands of mostly angry e-mails from across the country, as well as threats on their lives, state Capitol police said.

Leaders of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee pulled the bill from consideration Tuesday, but an estimated 3,500 people — led by the archbishop of Hartford and the bishops of Bridgeport and Hartford — rallied on the Capitol steps, demanding religious freedom.

"No other church or religion in this state is being subjected to this maltreatment," said the Rev. Michael R. Cote, bishop of Norwich. "Today it is the Roman Catholic Church. Who will be next?"

Some Catholics angry about gay marriage
Some of the estimated 1.3 million Catholics in Connecticut — a state of 3.5 million — are angry about the General Assembly legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples and the state Supreme Court later approving gay marriage, as well as lawmakers approving millions of dollars in state funding for embryonic stem cell research and considering legislation that bans discrimination against transgendered people.

Catholics were also angered by a failed attempt in 2002 to require priests to report sexual abuse — even if they learned about it during confession — if a child was in imminent danger.

State Rep. T.R. Rowe, R-Trumbull, a Roman Catholic, said many of his fellow faithful feel the latest bill meddles in church business and is "the straw that broke the camel's back."

"Traditional values promoted by the church and by the average citizen have been disregarded and ignored and reversed, frankly, over the past few years," he said in an interview.

The newest bill would have changed a little-known 1866 law that sets out rules for religious corporations. Under the proposal, each individual church's board would include seven to 13 lay members, giving them the power to control parish finances. The archbishop or bishop of the diocese would serve on the board but could not vote on issues.

Currently, under state law, individual Roman Catholic churches in Connecticut organize as corporations and file with the state. The archbishop or bishop, the vicar-general of the diocese, the pastor of the congregation and two lay members — appointed annually by the bishop — form the boards for each parish and handle most of its financial matters.

Roman Catholics embrace an apostolic faith, in which the spiritual authority stems from its leaders, including the pope, cardinals and bishops.

"This particular bill, Senate Bill 1098, is just outrageous," said Michael Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference. "It is a major attack on the foundation and structure of the Catholic Church. It's anti-Catholic in our view."

Attorney general may review matter
Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he agrees with the protesters that the government should not be intrude on religion, and questions whether the 1866 law — which he said he didn't know about — is even constitutional.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal will be asked to review the matter and help lawmakers determine whether the old law should be scrapped — a move the bishops oppose. Blumenthal has said he has constitutional concerns with the old law.

"I think the existence of that statute came as a shock to everybody," Lawlor said.

A group of parishioners, upset about recent cases of priests accused of embezzling large sums from parishes in Darien and Greenwich, had asked the Judiciary Committee leaders to raise a bill this session to require more lay people on these boards.

In December 2007, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay of Darien priest was sentenced to 37 months in prison for stealing about $1.3 million from his parish to support a luxurious lifestyle.

Last year, the former pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Greenwich, the Rev. Michael Moynihan, was forced to resign from the church amid allegations of financial mismanagement, including claims he kept two bank accounts secret from the diocese. An audit showed $400,000 was missing.

Lawlor and Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, who raised the bill at the request of the parishioners, are now facing the brunt of Catholics' anger over the legislation. When their names were mentioned at the rally, the crowd erupted in a roar of boos and chants.

One woman held a sign that read: "Sen. McDonald, Rep. Michael Lawlor, we are praying for your conversion. Jesus loves you. Love him back."

Thousands of angry e-mails
Capitol Police Chief Michael J. Fallon said his department is investigating at least one credible death threat against the lawmakers. Both Lawlor and McDonald have received thousands of angry e-mails.

McDonald issued a statement Wednesday saying he never intended to offend anyone of faith or any of the responsible parish corporations.

"My only goal was to try my best to represent the concerns of my constituents, some of whom were the victims of fraud," he said. "I regret that in my pursuit of their interests, I failed to appreciate and invite into discussion early on the views of other, equally concerned Catholics."

Republican lawmakers organized their own informational forum Wednesday so people could voice concerns about the legislation, which could be revived in future sessions. Kathleen Welch of New London planned to testify.

Welch said there's a bias against Catholics in the General Assembly, especially among those who back same-sex marriage.

"The bills are oriented to kind of subvert the will of the people and sometimes attack the church, particularly the Catholic Church," she said. "I think (the religious corporations bill) was the final straw and people are just tired of being barraged with anti-family legislation."

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