Senior Catholic cleric accused of ‘deliberate financial mismanagement’ at Scottish archdiocese

One of Scotland’s most senior Catholic clerics and trustees at his archdiocese have been accused of “deliberate financial mismanagement,” with claims he used “authoritarian” language while attempting to raise a tranche of funding from parishioners.

A dossier detailing serious concerns about Archbishop Leo Cushley and his fellow trustees at the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh has been sent to Scotland’s charity watchdog. It includes allegations about the conduct of the archbishop, and accuses one of the trustees of adopting a “threatening” tone in correspondence concerning financial contributions.

The complaint to the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) will send shockwaves throughout the Catholic Church in Scotland. It claims the archdiocese has imposed “unduly onerous” demands on ordinary parishes and their parishioners by asking for payments towards a new investment fund for retired clergy. It stresses the sums being asked for – as much as £20,000 extra a year in some cases – have not been “objectively justified”, nor “demonstrated as necessary”.

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It also accuses Archbishop Cushley of using “curt”, “authoritarian” and “inappropriately assertive” terms in asking for the payments. The complaint goes on to claim the 61 year-old, and the archdiocese’s trustees, have failed to conform with canon law.

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One former priest who served in the archdiocese has called on the Vatican to launch its own investigation into the allegations. He warned the entire parish structure in the archdiocese is now under threat as a result of the new funding model, which he described as “deeply unchristian”.

However, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh said it would “never abandon” its duty to retired clergy. The spokesman said its trustees had acted “equitably and transparently”, and in line with both Scots charity law and canon law. “They have gone to exceptional lengths to listen to the concerns of the representatives of the parish in question, and to answer their questions in detail,” he said.

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The complaint has been submitted by a parish finance council and parishioners. Details of the allegations against Archbishop Cushley and the archdiocesan trustees were passed to Scotland on Sunday by John Halley, an advocate who drafted the six-page complaint on behalf of the parish finance council.

The OSCR said it had received the complaint and that it will be assessed. Scotland on Sunday understands the regulator is expected to launch an investigation.

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Archbishop Leo Cushley

It comes at a time when the archdiocese has claimed it is facing a multi-million gap in its accounts to meet the costs of caring for retired clergy. Only last year, Archbishop Cushley told one parish there was “an alarming shortfall” in the archdiocese’s finances.

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The controversy around the archdiocese’s efforts to raise the money from parishes comes amid scrutiny of its financial stewardship. Its latest accounts show its total reserves stood at more than £56.6 million at the end of 2021, with nearly £14m in cash in the bank. While the archdiocese’s overall income increased by £2.4m last year, its spending on charitable activities fell by more than £400,000.

The complaint raises doubts over the archdiocese’s model to raise money for what is known as the Aged and Infirm Clergy Fund (AICF), an issue that has been the source of growing consternation among parishioners.

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Financial records maintained by the archdiocese show there has been a modest increase in the amount spent caring for former priests who benefit from the AICF. In 2021, those outgoings totalled £390,000 covering the retirement grants, accommodation costs, and monthly allowances for 25 individuals. In 2020, the expenditure stood at £370,000, and the year before that, £363,000. The current balance of the AICF is just under £1.9m, and last year, parishes contributed more than £635,000 towards the fund.

Even so, the archdiocese’s latest accounts stipulate that additional funds of up to £7.5m are required to meet “expected future retirement costs”. A note to the accounts states the assessed costs of future retirement allowances will reach £17.7m. That is broken down as £4.3m for retired priests, £7.6m for the “past service of working priests”, and a further £5.8m for the “future service of working priests”.

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At the same time as it is seeking to increase the AICF fund, the archdiocese is paring back the financial support it gives retired clergy. Archbishop Cushley announced last month that a lump grant of £9,300 will no longer be given automatically to all incardinated clergy upon their retirement, with future payments only considered where it is requested, and in cases of “genuine need”.

Under the changes to the AICF model addressed in the complaint, parishes are being asked to pay between £10,000 and £20,000 a year in addition to their existing contributions. The complainers to the OSCR say the retirement scheme will create an investment fund “far in excess of the amount required” to care for aged, infirm, and retired clergy.

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The finance committee raised their concerns in a letter sent last year to Archbishop Cushley, who succeeded the disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien in 2013. In it, they pointed out that a “significant number” of their church’s parishioners were themselves pensioners who lived on the state pension. “To expect them to pay more than what they do at present is, frankly, unacceptable,” it stated. “Covid-19 has also placed a significant financial burden on many families, some of whom will struggle to maintain their current financial contribution to the parish, without an added burden on them.”

However, having been frustrated in their attempts to secure answers about the new AICF scheme, the committee decided to approach the OSCR, asking it to investigate.

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“In the circumstances, the conduct of the archbishop, and of the trustees, in the respects identified is reasonably perceived by the complainers, on behalf of the parishioners, to constitute deliberate financial mismanagement of the archdiocesan charity,” the complaint states.

“The request for each parish to pay £10,000, or £20,000, in addition to present archdiocesan parish assessments, imposes an unnecessary and unjustifiable financial burden on parishioners, many of whom are retired and/or unable to access the level of pension payments which will be available to be made to retired clergy.”

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It adds: “The trustees’ apparent intention, by necessary inference, appears to be to create a fund part of which will be superfluous to that required for pension provision and which will be available to be used for other purposes at their discretion.”

The complainers also state that despite making their “active, repeated, and ongoing concerns” clear to the archdiocese, its trustees have repeatedly failed to address them, and said their conduct, and that of Archbishop Cushley, “does not conform with the requirements of procedural and substantive canon law which they are bound to adhere to”.

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Mr Halley said: "It is surprising and concerning that the archbishop and the trustees appear to prefer an authoritarian rather than a pastoral approach. Most people will simply not accept that these days from a demonstrably fallible church leadership.

"In respect of financial governance issues, it is unacceptable and offensive to expect devout, but not wealthy, parishioners to simply pay up without candid reasoning disclosed, when reasonably requested, and demonstrated necessary.

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"The parish finance committee appear to have repeatedly asked for the detail, calculations and projections necessary to be able to advise their priest. To deny such reasonable requests, in the present financial climate and wider clerical circumstances, smacks of unacceptable arrogance."

He added: "I cannot detect a demonstrably Christian approach in the conduct of the archdiocesan leadership. Their Johannine approach appears more like King John than St John."

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The complaint was sent to the OSCR in September. Later that month, Archbishop Cushley issued a decree to increase what is known as the parish assessment – essentially a levy – to include clergy retirement contributions. It means some parishes will have to pass on much as a third of their offertory income to the archdiocese.

The issue of the AICF finances has been one subject to considerable urgency and debate throughout the archdiocese in recent years. One parish reported in its newsletter last February how it had received an email from Archbishop Cushley spelling out the need for funding.

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It said he had asked the parish to consider contributing £1,000 to £2,000, and quoted him as stating: “Our archdiocese is facing an alarming shortfall in its finances. This is caused primarily by the steady increasing cost of clergy retirement payments.” Many parishes, the newsletter added, had been asked to contribute £10,000.

A former priest who was one of four whistle-blowers who spoke out about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of Archbishop Cushley’s predecessor, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, called on the Vatican to launch a separate investigation from the OSCR, and said he had “severe misgivings” about the changes to the AICF funding model, which he described as “deeply unchristian”.

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Brian Devlin, whose decision to speak out against the late cardinal prompted his resignation, said: “Ten years ago, the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh was ground zero in terms of scandal in the Catholic Church because of sexual predation by Cardinal O’Brien. Now, it’s another form of power abuse that needs to be looked at in the form of deliberate financial mismanagement.

“It’s not a surprise that this type of behaviour is being alleged, but it is deeply shocking. We need to see this within the broad context of power abuse. It’s about the abuse of power by those in charge.

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“This is the second time that the archdiocese has caused scandal to the church, and the allegations need to be investigated by the Vatican. Like every other in-depth clerical investigation, the people being investigated should be suspended pending the outcome. The archdiocese is also a charity, and the state has every right to intervene and ask what is going on here.”

Mr Devlin characterised the archdiocese’s approach as a “command and control structure”, with decisions over the AICF payments being made without any assessment the potential damage to parishes and parishioners.

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“This is done in the knowledge that parishes could topple over,” he said. “We have to remember that the vast majority of the church’s charitable work comes from parishes, not the central administration. The parish structure is at threat now because of the decisions that are being made centrally, and that is deeply unjust.

“The pressure being put on parishioners now is a form of spiritual abuse. We’re in a time of real austerity that’s going to get worse, and more of the cut from the collection plate is going to the central archdiocese.”

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A spokesman for the OSCR said: “We have received a concern about this charity, which will be assessed in line with our inquiry policy.”

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh said: “The archdiocese has a duty of care to its retired clergy and sadly past funding arrangements were insufficient to ensure that the archdiocese could discharge that duty of care. The trustees have exercised prudent financial management on part of the archdiocese to increase funding for this purpose.

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"The trustees have acted equitably and transparently and in line with Scots charity law and canon law. They have gone to exceptional lengths to listen to the concerns of the representatives of the parish in question, and to answer their questions in detail. The archdiocese will never abandon its duty of care to its retired clergy, most of whom have given decades of service to the church. The archdiocese has not been asked by OSCR to respond to a concern, but welcomes any review.”

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