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How is the Catholic Church spending “Peter’s Pence?” A R.I. parishioner sues to find out

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops held its Fall General Assembly meeting in November in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops held its Fall General Assembly meeting in November in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)Steve Ruark/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- A parishioner in East Providence has filed a federal class action lawsuit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, after media reports that as little as 10 percent of collections go to charity.

Every year, the Conference of Catholic Bishops solicits for donations from parishioners at Catholic churches around the country for the “Peter’s Pence Collection." The fund is advertised as a collection to help victims of war, natural disasters and disease throughout the world.

David O’Connell says in his lawsuit that he donated to Peter’s Pence at Sacred Heart Church in 2018 because he thought the money was going to the needy.

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Then, last month, the Wall Street Journal and other media in Italy reported that millions of dollars were actually going to “plug holes in the Vatican’s administrative budget" -- along with investments in other unusual projects.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars over the last several years has been diverted into various suspicious investment funds, which in turn have funneled the money into such diverse ventures as luxury condominium developments and Hollywood movies, while paying fund managers hefty, multi-million dollar commissions,” Providence lawyer Peter N. Wasylyk and Marc R. Stanley of the Stanley Law Group in Dallas, Texas, wrote in the lawsuit filed Jan. 22 at U.S. District Court.

Where did the money allegedly go? More than $3.6 million went into the film “Men in Black: International,” according to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, and more than $200 million invested in a luxury apartment development in London, according to the Italian news magazine L’Espresso.

That’s not where O’Connell thought his money was going. And he wants it back.

O’Connell is the director of religious education at St. Martha’s Church in East Providence and former executive director of Mother of Life, a nonprofit pro-life pregnancy center in Providence. He referred questions this week to Wasylyk, who said the lawsuit “speaks for itself.”

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Chieko Noguchi, the director of public affairs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, declined to comment on the pending litigation. Noguchi did not answer questions about how much was collected by Peter’s Pence or how the money was spent.

The lawsuit, with O’Connell as the lead, intends to find out.

“Having collected hundreds of millions of dollars from faithful and well-meaning donors for the poor in immediate need of assistance, USCCB must now account for itself and the money with which it was entrusted, and, in the interests of justice, it must disgorge the funds that were not spent as it promised,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges fraud, unjust enrichment, and breach of fiduciary duty, and is seeking a jury trial. The lawyers are asking anyone who made donations to Peter’s Pence since Jan. 1, 2013 to join the lawsuit at PetersPenceClassAction.com.

This lawsuit is similar to one settled nearly a year ago against Gospel for Asia, a large ministry that accused of spending only 13 percent of its donations on charity work in the field. The class action suit included about 200,000 people who donated money between 2009 and 2018.

The ministry agreed to settle the lawsuit for $37 million to the plaintiffs.





Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.