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Spirit of giving? Boston Archdiocese defends six-figure salaries for top church employees

The Boston Archdiocese is defending six-figure salaries paid to a growing number of church employees, saying the pay is commensurate with their talents and work duties.

The Boston Herald on Wednesday reported that the archdiocese’s latest annual report lists 17 “senior lay executives” who earned more than $150,000 last year. In 2006, only five employees were paid that much, according to the newspaper.

The Boston Catholic Insider blog reported similar figures for 2011 in a post last month titled “Bloated Payroll” but said just two employees were making $150,000 in 2006.

Topping the 2011 list was Mary Grassa O’Neill, superintendent of the archdiocese’s Catholic schools, whose total compensation  topped $351,000, the Herald reported. The top archdiocesan lawyer earned $326,169, while the recently departed chancellor, the archdiocese’s top financial officer, grossed $276,486.

The newspaper noted that the archdiocese has cut 50 staff members since 2006 but payroll costs increased by nearly $1 million.

Archdiocesan spokesman Terrence Donilon said it’s important to look at the pay structure “with a broader brush.” He told msnbc.com in an email that the archdiocese is in the midst of an "extensive rebuilding effort” and its annual financial reports are “the most extensive and transparent” of any diocese in the U.S.

“What this demonstrates is great progress by the Archdiocese, financial stability and a Church that is pointed in the right direction because of Cardinal Sean (O’Malley’s) leadership and the combined efforts of our priests, religious, deacons and laity,” said Donilon, whose compensation topped $193,000 last year, according to the Herald.

Donilon says a total of $8.3 million was spent in fiscal 2006 on for salaries and services. Adjusted for inflation, that equates to $9.5 million in fiscal 2011. Actual current spending on the same salaries and services, including the 17 positions referenced, is a little under $9.3 million, he says.

"While it is true to say there are more positions at higher rates of pay compared to FY2006, it is important to note that many of these positions replaced contracted services which were at higher cost levels and also were not able to provide the level of service and productivity experienced today," Donilon said.

The Archdiocese of Boston, which serves more than 1.8 million Catholics, is the fourth-largest archdiocese in the U.S.

Boston Catholic Insider insists the six-figure salaries for top brass are "excessive" and has urged the archdiocese to cut back.

“For the sake of the fiscal health of the Boston Archdiocese, out of fiduciary responsibility to be a good steward of donor funds, and for the sake of the ability of the diocese to carry out the saving mission of Jesus Christ for years to come, we hope and pray we are pleasantly surprised and some meaningful change occurs here,” it said in a recent post.

Peter Borre, chairman of the Council of Parishes, a group fighting church closures, says the high salaries run counter to “the basic spiritual mission of the Catholic Church.”

“The crushing overhead weight at headquarters is becoming an intolerable burden for many parishes, and if the archdiocese wants to cut costs, it should start with Braintree (archdiocese headquarters), not in the churches,” Borre told the Herald.

Donilon accused Borre of creating “chaos and rumor mills” with regard to the church. “He has a strange obsession with criticizing the Church that only he can explain,” Donilon wrote to msnbc.com.

“In fact it is interesting that the Council of Parishes, so interested in our finances, does not file its own annual report or public accounting for the activities of his organization. Mr. Borre raises thousands of dollars from Catholics to support his efforts to damage and challenge the Church yet nowhere has he ever once filed a financial report.”

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