Peter’s Pence USCCB Lawsuit Not Over: Investing on the Needy or on Controversial Funds?

While the Peter’s Pence collection might be generally understood to support the pope’s charities, it has been used to support administrative costs in the Roman Curia for decades.
The collection became connected with scandal when 2019 media reporting claimed that only 10% of funds were distributed to charity.

Newsroom (11/02/2022 5:30 PM, Gaudium Press) After waiting more than a year for a U.S. federal judge to decide whether to dismiss a lawsuit that claims the U.S. bishops’ conference fraudulently promoted the annual Peter’s Pence collection, a lawyer for the plaintiff says he expects the case could soon begin moving forward.
While the lawyer who initially filed the suit in 2020 was credentialed last month as the United States ambassador to Argentina, the attorney now leading the case voices he is optimistic about the plaintiffs’ claim and confident in his legal team.
The class-action lawsuit was filed in January 2020 by plaintiff David O’Connell, a Rhode Island Catholic. The suit says that while the USCCB promoted the Peter’s Pence offertory collection as an effort to help the Church’s global relief efforts, most of the money collected — hundreds of millions of dollars — was placed by the Vatican Secretariat of State into suspect investment funds. Or used “to plug holes in the Vatican’s administrative budget.”

Explaining the lawsuit, attorney Martin Woodward warns on how, “the USCCB oversaw the promotional efforts for the Peter’s Pence collection, through which it told parishioners across the United States that the money they would be donating to the collection would be applied to help the neediest of the needy around the world. It turned out that was not in fact what happened to almost all the money; which instead went, as we now know, to fill holes in the Vatican budget.”
The USCCB “has always known the difference between a donation for emergency assistance and a donation to defray Vatican administrative expenses.” According to the lawsuit, the USCCB promotion of the campaign constitutes fraud.
“And we are looking to ensure that nothing like that happens again, and that misapplied funds are applied to where they should have been or returned to parishioners if they wish,” Woodward stressed. And he continued: “it would be surprising to learn that the USCCB does not have exact records of what money [the collection] took in and where it was ultimately applied because their own standards obligate them to keep those records. And, if it turns out that everything can be accounted for, I would think that they’d be eager to share that with us.”

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In court, the USCCB denied most of the lawsuit’s allegations, saying that while it “assists the Holy See in the promotion of the Peter’s Pence Collection” it does not “administer, oversee, collect or receive funds for the Peter’s Pence Collection.”
The bishops asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, and a hearing was held in January 2021. But before the case’s judge issued a ruling, she was promoted to a new bench, and there has been no progress in the lawsuit for more than a year.

In December 2021, President Joe Biden nominated Marc Stanley, the lawsuit’s lead attorney, to become the U.S. ambassador in Argentina.
Woodward indicated that despite delays, the case will continue, and that he expects a new judge assigned to the case could rule soon on the bishops’ plea to see the lawsuit dropped.
“We were hopeful last year for a ruling fairly quickly after the hearing, but the judge was nominated and confirmed [to an appellate court bench] and did not issue a ruling before she left the bench, which just kind of left things as they were,” Woodward said.
With Stanley’s departure, the legal team is adding new attorneys, and then “we will see about trying to get a status conference or something to get moving again, because we would like to be headed to discovery. And we need to have a ruling on this motion before we can get there.”

While the Peter’s Pence collection might be generally understood to support the pope’s charities, it has been used to support administrative costs in the Roman Curia for decades.
The collection became connected with scandal when 2019 media reporting claimed that only 10% of funds were distributed to charity, and showed that Peter’s Pence funds had been used in connection with the Vatican’s controversial London property investment, and with other controversial funds. Some of the controversial funds are indeed now under scrutiny in the Vatican’s own financial crimes trial.
Pope Francis said in 2019 that it was responsible stewardship for the Vatican to invest Peter’s Pence funds, and in recent years, Vatican officials have provided information on the fund’s use, explaining, for example, that slightly more than one-third of Peter’s Pence receipts during the early months of 2021 had been distributed to international aid and evangelization projects.

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(With files from The Pillar)

Compiled by Raju Hasmukh

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