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Posted Thursday Sept. 27, 2006 8:12 a.m. CDT

Bishops' conference faces budget axe

By JOE FEUERHERD
Washington

Sixty-one full-time positions at the Washington headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about one-quarter of the authorized workforce, would be eliminated under a budget reduction and strategic planning proposal approved by the conference's administrative committee earlier this month.

Thirty-two of those authorized positions were unfilled, meaning that approximately 29 individuals could find their continued employment at risk, according to bishops' conference documents obtained by NCR. Knowing that budget cuts are forthcoming, department heads at the bishops' conference have been hesitant to fill vacant posts, according to a conference spokesperson.

The full body of bishops will consider the proposal at their November meeting in Baltimore.

Under the plan, the "diocesan assessment" -- essentially a tax that each dioceses pays to subsidize national conference operations -- would be reduced 16 percent. Though the assessment accounts for just 9 percent of the conference's $131 million annual budget, it is the organization's largest source of unrestricted revenue. Over the last several years, citing fiscal constraints in their home dioceses, the bishops have declined to increase the assessment. As a result, the conference has dipped into endowed reserves to fund operations.

In addition to the cutbacks, the plan approved by the administrative committee includes some significant changes in the structure of the conference. Under the restructuring, for example, separate offices dealing with Hispanic, African-American and other ethnic minorities would be merged into a department focused on "Cultural Diversity in the Church." A consolidated national collections department would be responsible for the fundraising aspects of special annual appeals (such as those for the Church in Eastern Europe and the Church in Africa), though the programmatic efforts funded by the collections would remain within the policy departments.

The work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development would shift to the newly constituted "Human Development, Justice and Peace" office, a successor to the Social Development and World Peace department. Through the consolidation, the social justice efforts would see a reduction from 37 authorized positions to 25. Currently, 28 individuals carry out the tasks envisioned for the new office.

The vast majority of bishop conference offices -- everything from Catholic Education and Divine Worship to Ecumenical & Interreligious Affairs and administrative services such as accounting and the counsel's office -- face staff reductions under the plan. The Pro Life Activities office staff complement would be reduced from an authorized level of 11 staff to eight; the conference's library, staffed by a full-time librarian and a part-time assistant, would be eliminated.

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Departments not slated for cuts include the office of Laity, Marriage, Family Life & Youth. In addition, the four full-time and one part-time positions devoted to operating the house for diocesan priests working at the bishops' conference would be maintained under the plan.

Not included in the proposal are the 79-employee Migrant and Refugee Services program, which is a source of more than $41 million in government grants to the conference. Likewise, Catholic News Service, the self-supporting news wire service of the bishops, has a separate union contract.

Meanwhile, in a letter to staff, the conference's general secretary, Msgr. David Malloy, warned conference employees that they will face cuts in their benefit package. Beginning next January, for example, family care health premiums will increase by about $800 annually for those enrolled in the conference's health plan.

"In approving changes to the benefits program the bishops are well aware that employees will be challenged to balance individual and family financial resources," said Malloy. "However, overall, the bishops are convinced that these necessary actions are the best we can do to fulfill the conference's objective of providing a comprehensive, just and competitive benefits package."

If approved by the bishops in November, a "final plan will be developed in early 2007 for the planning and budgeting cycle of 2008," according to the budget documents.

[Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@ncronline.org.]

September 27, 2006, National Catholic Reporter

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