Dozens of parishioners have signed an open letter to Archbishop Leo Cushley and his fellow trustees at the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh raising concerns over mandatory payments to bolster a fund for retired clergy. They warn it will disproportionately impact smaller parishes and threaten their financial stability.
The churchgoers from three Edinburgh parishes have also asked how the archdiocese is utilising its significant cash reserves at a time when many parishioners are struggling. In the letter, they state: “We wish to point out that £57m in reserves does not sit comfortably with the fact that many in our communities are dependent upon foodbanks.”
The growing scrutiny of Archbishop Cushley’s leadership comes after Scotland on Sunday revealed how he and the trustees are the subject of a complaint detailing concerns about their conduct and method of raising funds. The complaint, being considered by the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR), accuses them of “deliberate financial mismanagement”. The archdiocesan trustees said they had acted accordingly to appropriate and independent professional advice.
The 31 parishioners behind the open letter say that story made them aware of “how widespread our misgivings are felt within the archdiocese”. Their letter focuses on the disputed model employed by the archdiocese to finance its Aged and Infirm Clergy Fund (AICF).
The archdiocese says the measure, introduced by a decree from Archbishop Cushley in September last year, is necessary to solve a “funding crisis”. It says it needs around £17.7m to meet future retirement allowances, with Archbishop Cushley telling priests last month that solving the problem necessitated the “painful process of raising money”. The archdiocese’s latest accounts show its overall income increased year-on-year by £2.4m to £8.9m. Spending on charitable activities fell by over £400,000.
The AICF decree means some parishes will have to set aside as much as a third of their annual offertory income. Now, the parishioners at St Catherine’s, St Gregory’s and St John Vianney’s in Edinburgh have called for an urgent rethink.
Their letter notes the curia bank account contained £4.4m, a 32 per cent increase from 2020, with a further £9.4m in parish bank accounts, up 6 per cent. “We make the point that meanwhile, parish buildings are closing, older people have further to travel to Mass, important services at these parishes will be lost, and we seemingly cannot secure a pension for our retired priests,” the parishioners wrote. “In this context, we find it hard to see how the amount of just under £14m in the bank accounts, unused, could justify the imposition of a new levy on parishes.”
The parishioners have also asked whether individual impact assessments of parishes’ needs were conducted, pointing out one of their parishes will be left with an offertory income of £8,800. “Our view was that to threaten the financial stability of the smaller, poorer parishes would lead to their inability to fulfil the objectives of the charity set out in its trust deed,” they explained.
Archbishop Cushley has said the issue of finding “adequate funding” for retired clergy dated back to 1972, but the Edinburgh parishioners believe that explanation raises multiple questions. “What was the reason for this not being addressed until the middle of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, during which so many have been hit hard financially?” their letter asks. “What, if any, accountability existed for the errors leading to the gross underfunding?”
The issues surrounding the AICF will be discussed later this week at gatherings in Fife and Edinburgh. They are among five meetings being held throughout March in each deanery area, with a lay representative from every parish invited alongside parish priests.
The parishioners have also requested an open meeting with the trustees, and the establishment of a collaborative body within the archdiocese to revisit the decree. Any such review, they argue, should find a “better and fairer” way of supporting retired priests, and chart a “more sustainable and equitable pathway forward” for the archdiocese.
Elsewhere, the letter, which has also been sent to the OSCR, points out while Pope Francis used his Christmas homily to focus on the impoverished, scrutiny should fall on the emphasis placed by Archbishop Cushley’s archdiocese on the relief of poverty – a purpose explicitly specified in its trust deed.
The letter notes that while the archdiocese spent over £5.6m in 2021 on the advancement of religion and education, accounting for nearly 82 per cent of charitable expenditure, it put just £776,000 towards the ‘relief of poverty’ and £512,000 towards the ‘alleviation of sickness and disease’. The parishioners said those purposes may benefit from “a review in terms of their importance and weighting”, which could free up AICF funding.
A spokesman for the OSCR said: “Following the concerns that were raised in November, we have also received correspondence from the charity itself, and we are currently considering all this information. I can also confirm that OSCR have received a copy of a letter sent to the archdiocese, and we will consider its contents as part of this work.”
The archdiocese declined to disclose its responses to the parishioners when asked. A spokesman said that a “detailed reply” answering each of the parishioners' questions was hand-delivered to the parish for each signatory, and the parishioners then responded to express “thanks for the thorough and almost comprehensive manner in which you have dealt with our concerns”.
Since receiving the trustees’ reply, the parishioners have repeatedly asked them for permission to make it public in the interests of transparency, and expressed “disappointment” the archdiocese has yet to respond to their request for an open meeting and a new collaborative body.