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Chicago Archdiocese is quietly using cemetery cash to pay priest sex abuse costs

Blase Cupich

Cardinal Blase Cupich | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

For years, the Catholic Church in Chicago has said it enlists two revenue sources to pay for settlements and other costs related to priest sex abuse cases: loans and the sale of property.

But a Chicago Sun-Times examination found the church has been using money from its cemetery system to help pay down nagging debt related to sex misconduct — which at last count was more than $200 million — without telling the public.

A source with knowledge of the operations of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the arm of the church for Cook and Lake counties overseen by Cardinal Blase Cupich, said about $8 million a year has been shifted from the cemetery system to pay down that debt.

Neither Betsy Bohlen, chief operating officer of the archdiocese, nor Cupich would comment. But church spokeswoman Paula Waters said in a statement:

“Investment earnings on cemeteries assets are used to help fund annual debt payments. These investment earnings are over and above what is needed for the proper care of our cemeteries. We take all of our obligations seriously and discharge them responsibly.”

Waters wouldn’t answer questions about the church’s debt and whether the church has been less than straightforward by failing to disclose this revenue stream until now.

Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery

Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery in Hillside | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

But Waters said it’s not accurate to portray the money as “diverted from cemeteries” because they “are fully and amply funded.”

“It is excess earnings,” Waters said.

Church officials wouldn’t say whether that money originated with people buying burial plots.

The latest publicly available archdiocesan financial report says about the cemetery system: “Operating support is derived primarily from the sale of easements providing for graves, crypts and burial services, and from investment earnings.”

The same report shows the cemetery system had more than $600 million in investments in 2017.

The church is one of the largest landholders in the Chicago region, with cemeteries a key part of that portfolio, also carrying an important place in Catholic tradition.

According to the cemetery system’s web site, “When we are baptized, we are brought to a sacred place, a Catholic church and baptized into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection — thus giving us the promise of eternal life. When one of our loved ones die, we take them to another sacred place, a Catholic cemetery, for burial in sacred ground while they await the resurrection of the dead and the promise of eternal life.”

Previously, Waters said the archdiocese uses “the proceeds from asset sales and borrowings to pay abuse claims. We use interim borrowings to meet obligations in advance of receiving sale proceeds.”

In February, the Sun-Times reported that the archdiocese owes more than $200 million, mostly related to sex abuse claims, and could face another $100 million or more in costs for pending and future sexual misconduct claims.

Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleums

The entrance to Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleums in Hillside | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

At the time, the church was in the process of selling the surface parking lot at Holy Name Cathedral in the North Loop that was going to be the site of two high-rises. The archdiocese was expected to reap $100 million or more, most or all of it going to pay down sex abuse debt, the Sun-Times reported.

The developer and the church recently completed that sale, and construction has begun, but Waters wouldn’t reveal the financial terms.

There are 45 Catholic cemeteries that are part of the archdiocese, from sprawling sites like All Saints Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleum in the Des Plaines area to small ones anchored to individual parishes, according to the church.

In 2017, “cemeteries sales and services” generated about $52.5 million in revenues, up about $2 million over the prior year, according to the finance records. Cemetery expenses in 2017 were listed as $53.6 million.

Also that year, there was $18.3 million in undeveloped cemetery land, records show.

Among the people buried in local Catholic cemeteries: victims of abuser priests and some priests with credible allegations of sexual misconduct.

Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery in Hillside | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times