US bishops’ conference denies any wrongdoing in ongoing Peter’s Pence lawsuit, blames parishioners
WASHINGTON, April 28, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — In an ongoing case regarding the use of Peter’s Pence donations, lawyers for the U.S. bishops have asserted that parishioners were aware (or at least ought to have been) that their money could be used by the Holy See for any purpose, despite their own advertisement to the contrary.
The Peter’s Pence lawsuit was originally filed in January 2020 against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) by the Stanley Law Group based in Dallas, Texas, representing a Class Action brought by Catholic layman David O’Connell. The suit raises allegations against the USCCB’s promotion of Peter’s Pence, accusing the episcopal conference of “actively” misleading Catholics into believing their millions of dollars in donations to the collection would be used to help “victims of war, oppression, natural disaster, or disease.”
According to the 23-page complaint, Peter’s Pence is a “special collection taken from Catholics every June” and is described by the USCCB as a fund that “supports the Pope’s philanthropy by giving the Holy Father the means to provide emergency assistance to those in need because of natural disaster, war, oppression, and disease.”
Instead of supporting the above charitable causes, reports from Italy’s L’Espresso confirmed that “roughly $560 million” had been “diverted into ‘reckless speculative operations’” at the Swiss investment company Credit Suisse, for example. In all, the “investments” accounted for around “77 per cent of the collections,” the report said.
Much of the money collected under the guise of charity was funnelled into morally questionable ventures, such as Hollywood’s sexually explicit Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” “luxury condominium developments” that ended up losing the Vatican millions of dollars, and “hefty, multi-million dollar commissions” to fund managers.
The suit alleges that “as little as 10% has found its way to the needy for whom it was given,” although some commentators have suggested that figure comes closer to a mere five percent.
An accompanying press release argued that the USCCB is “liable under theories of common law fraud, unjust enrichment, and breach of fiduciary duty” for “misleadingly soliciting millions of dollars in charitable donations that were diverted into private investments.”
“USCCB must come clean and give back the money it took from well-intentioned people who thought they were giving urgently-needed funds to help the destitute around the world,” Marc Stanley, the lead counsel representing the Class Action against the USCCB, said at the time.
Following the complaint being filed in a Rhode Island court, the local jurisdiction under which O’Connell was living, the USCCB opened a Motion to Dismiss the case on February 13, 2020, claiming a lack of personal jurisdiction and improper venue, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2) and 12(b)(3) and requesting Washington, D.C., as an alternative venue to continue proceedings.
In response, Stanley agreed to transfer the venue, rather than argue against the request or drop the case. The Rhode Island Court granted the request to transfer to D.C. the following May, denying the USCCB’s attendant Motion to Dismiss as “moot.” So began a series of evasive moves by the USCCB’s counsel.
Following the case being transferred to a new jurisdiction, it was assigned to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has since been tipped to be President Joe Biden’s pick for the Supreme Court after he nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia less than a month ago.
On June 2, 2020, the USCCB petitioned Brown for an extension to answer the complaints raised within the Class Action lawsuit, which she granted, giving the defense just over one month to prepare.
Within their July 6 reply, the USCCB flatly denied virtually all allegations, including the simple fact that they promoted the collection of Peter’s Pence donations for the purpose of helping those on the fringes of society, something expressly claimed on promotional material provided by the conference, but since deleted from the USCCB website.
Subsequently, on July 10, the conference moved again to have the case dismissed, basing their request on “lack of subject matter jurisdiction, for judgment on the pleadings or, in the alternative, for summary judgment.”
According to the USCCB, the complaint concerns a matter of internal Church governance over which the court may not assert jurisdiction, consistent with the First Amendment, in what is known as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.” The conference added that the complaint “fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” essentially asserting that O’Connell has not provided sufficient facts to indicate a violation of law has occurred.
Stanley noted that, though much attention is given by the conference to “exacting pleading standards,” that, in fact, “the thrust of its argument is to disclaim any fiduciary relationship to Mr. O’Connell or any donor to Peter’s Pence.” The conference, indeed, denied all fiduciary duties to O’Connell, asserting that his claim of a fiduciary relationship arises “out of the same sparse nucleus of fact as his fraud claim.”
In essence, this means that the USCCB does not believe it is in a position of trust with parishioners in matters pertaining to the custody of donations to Peter’s Pence, placing blame squarely on the shoulders of the faithful American Catholic parishioners who donate to the Peter’s Pence collection.
The conference, therefore, asserted that parishioners were (or at least ought to have been) aware that donations to Peter’s Pence could be used by the Holy See for any purpose, despite their own advertisement to the contrary.
Notably, the motion did not mention the allegations that money was funnelled into expensive London real estate and to other European investments funds, nor did it dispute that donations did not find their way to the poor and suffering, as was promised by the USCCB’s promotional material.
As part of the defense’s response to the “breach of fiduciary duties” allegation, the USCCB focused its efforts on denying the existence of any fiduciary relationship whatsoever, adding that there are “no facts to support a conclusion that the USCCB is a fiduciary to American Catholics generally, or that the USCCB had a relationship of trust and confidence with Plaintiff personally.” Consequently, the conference described the fiduciary claim as based on “bald allegations.”
Countering, Stanley noted that, “other than questioning the sufficiency of the allegations, USCCB’s only claimed ground for dismissal of the fiduciary duty claim is the ostensible absence of a fiduciary relationship.”
He explained that “the complaint makes clear that per its own Guidelines, USCCB requires — of itself, its dioceses, and churches — scrupulous honesty, transparency, and accountability to donors at every step of every collection process, to ensure that donor intent is honored.”
“As the only entity in charge of promoting and administering the Peter’s Pence collection in the United States, which it does pursuant to Guidelines that are binding upon dioceses, USCCB has a fiduciary duty to donors to act as a fiduciary and honor donor intent when it solicits charitable donations through its subordinates.”
As part of the ongoing legal proceedings, a Motion Hearing was held, via video-conference, at the U.S. District Court in D.C. January 28, 2021.
Throughout the course of the hearing, the USCCB’s counsel maintained the position that “there are situations in which a civil court should not insert itself into what are internal questions of church governance,” invoking ecclesiastical abstention. This not only covers matters of administration and doctrine, they argued, but also “spending decisions.”
The defense, headed by Emmet T. Flood, expanded, characterizing O’Connell’s complaint as basically “an idea of how his donation would be used immediately and exclusively,” and that simply because this did not happen as he thought it would, the judge ought not to get involved in internal affairs. “A civil court … should not be able to tell a religious institution how to spend its money,” the USCCB contended.
Brown questioned the fairness of the argument, simplifying the matter as follows: “[T]here is a great disparity between how this Peter’s Pence fund collection is being marketed and what the vast majority of the collection is actually used for … isn’t that a classic fraud kind of dynamic?”
Brown noted that O’Connell’s complaint was not that money was used for purposes not advertised simply, but that the money was understood to be used “in a certain way” by virtue of the accompanying promotion. The claim, then, has more to do with being deceived about the general intention behind raising the Peter’s Pence funds and the actual use thereof.
As the hearing continued, Flood repeatedly relied on arguments based on the particularity of the fraud claim made by O’Connell in the Class Action case. His argument was that O’Connell himself did not clearly define that he heard or received, in whatever manner, a misleading instruction from the conference as to the destination of his donation to Peter’s Pence, and that he has to be able to point to some particular instance thereof in order to make the fraud claim. All the while, Flood did not dispute the claim that the conference displayed misleading or false information regarding the use of Peter’s Pence funds.
O’Connell did, however, claim that he had heard from the conference that there was an annual collection, handled by the USCCB and given to Peter’s Pence for the sake of assisting the poor and marginalized. Stanley later pointed out that “this is a once-a-year solicitation, a special collection once a year … we do say that O’Connell heard that, and he relied on it and he donated money.”
The complaint also noted that O’Connell would have withheld his donation, had he known the true destination of the funds.
Flood retorted that the USCCB is not, “by reason of structure, in a position” to know where the money from Peter’s Pence donations ends up, arguing that fundraising would be useless “without giving [parishioners] some sense of where it might go.”
As was noted in O’Connell’s original claim, the USCCB “has always known the difference between a donation for emergency assistance and a donation to defray Vatican expenses” but “hid this distinction in its promotion, oversight, and administration of the Peter’s Pence collection in the United States.”
Consequently, the USCCB “has effectively profited at the expense of David O’Connell and members of the public.”
Brown suggested that the allegation of fraud can be made by O’Connell without knowing the precise mechanics behind the USCCB’s involvement in Peter’s Pence fundraising, some of which may only be known to the USCCB about the use of donations, especially prior to discovery. She added that, “given the allegations that place the Conference at the center of this [case] with respect to the alleged misrepresentations, I’m not sure he [O’Connell] needs to say more than when they made the statement.”
“Don't solicit money telling people this goes to the poor if you either don’t know where it goes or if it’s going to all of these investments and whatever before it gets to the poor, such that people are confused or people feel as though they haven’t been leveled with in terms of how this money is being allocated,” Brown added.
Following the conclusion of the hearing on January 28, the parties await Brown’s judgement, which could be delayed owing to her recent nomination to replace Attorney General Merrick Garland at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.