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For Mitt Romney, charity centers on Mormon Church

More than 80% of giving directed to his religion

A review of Mitt Romney’s charitable giving shows that while he has directed the vast majority of his money to the Mormon Church and its affiliate Brigham Young University, his giving to other causes is modest in comparison and ebbs and flows with his political ambitions, according to a Globe inspection of his tax filings.

The Republican presidential candidate has donated $9.4 million, or more than 80 percent of his charitable giving, to the church over the past dozen years, a figure far higher than previously known. Other causes have received $1.8 million from Romney during that period, according to tax filings of his foundation and two personal tax returns that have been made public.

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His nonchurch gifts have focused on youth development and health, including City Year of Boston and groups tackling multiple sclerosis, a disease his wife has battled. But for the preponderance of his charitable giving, Romney relies on the priorities of his church.

“If he’s giving far more money to his religious denomination than to civic causes, that’s interesting,’’ said Paul Lichterman, a professor of sociology and religion at the University of Southern California. “He has a lot of money and these are choices. Those are ethical and moral choices.’’

Romney made his fortune as founder of the Boston private equity firm Bain Capital and is worth as much as $250 million. Like many Americans, he gives most generously to his church. And as a Mormon, he tithes, donating 10 percent of his income to the church, as all members are encouraged to do.

Romney has given to groups in Boston over the years, including $70,000 to Harvard Business School, where he studied, and $82,500 to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. His largest gifts after the church have gone to the United Way, the international youth aid group Right to Play, and the George W. Bush Library.

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But unlike many people of his wealth and stature in the business world, Romney has contributed relatively modestly to Boston’s major civic and human services institutions, such as museums or food banks, even those on whose boards his former partners at Bain Capital serve. He has given virtually no money to the arts, according to his tax returns.

Romney declined to be interviewed for this story. His spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said, “The Romneys support the charitable mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church has a long tradition of charitable works, such as working with the Red Cross on disaster relief and helping the poor and less fortunate around the world through humanitarian aid, clean water, food production, and medical care.’’

According to his foundation’s tax filings, Romney seemed to place more attention on civic giving in years when he was most in the public eye.

In the years he was in office or running a campaign, Romney gave an average of $222,000 a year to nonchurch causes and generally did not make church gifts from the foundation. In nonpolitical years, he averaged $56,500 to civic causes.

In 2010, as Romney was preparing to run for president, he gave the church $1.7 million. He also gave more than in past years from his foundation to nonchurch causes, distributing $477,500 to 21 organizations, including $100,000 to Bush’s presidential library and $20,000 for Homes for our Troops, a Taunton group that adapts homes for injured veterans.

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“Donating can be a way of creating a public image, or a way of symbolizing a friendly feeling toward some group,’’ Lichterman, the professor, said. “Experienced politicians know their tax records are public, and they can use donations to send a variety of signals.’’

Romney has at times used his foundation to support groups with political agendas. He has given $35,000 each to the Federalist Foundation and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and $15,000 to a hunters’ rights group. In 2006, while governor of Massachusetts, he supported an antiabortion group and an anti-gay-marriage group.

In addition to the $9 million in church donations disclosed in Romney’s tax filings, he probably gave twice that amount - an estimated $9 million more - to fulfill his tithing obligation. That money would have come directly from his income and would be reflected in tax returns that he has not made public. The campaign would not confirm Romney’s total giving to the church over the 12 years.

The Globe’s analysis is based on actual donations made to nonprofits by Romney’s foundation. It does not include his gifts to the foundation, which the campaign has cited. That money often stays in the foundation for many years and sometimes is paid out to the church.

The funds that Romney and other Mormons tithe go to the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, according to Grant Bennett, a spokesman and former bishop of the Belmont temple where the Romneys have belonged for years. The church sends back to its congregations enough to cover their costs - to pay for utilities and social and youth programs.

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The central church devotes most of its money to building and upkeep of its places of worship, to foreign missions to convert people to Mormonism, and to disaster relief efforts after tsunamis and earthquakes. It also promotes self-reliance, distributing wheelchairs so people can go to work and to school. The church said it provided $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance globally from 1985 to 2010.

To help the poor in their local communities, Mormons set aside money by fasting monthly or weekly. The money they save on meals is pooled for fellow members in need.

“Because we are committed to the idea of being our brother’s keeper, we really are more committed to other members of our congregation than may be typical,’’ Bennett said.

Romney is known for his generosity to those in his inner circle, including helping a Mormon family whose children had become paralyzed and shutting down Bain Capital to find a partner’s lost daughter in New York City. But he has been criticized on the campaign trail for being remote from ordinary Americans.

Paul Watanabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said one might expect Romney to rely on civic philanthropy in areas where he feels government should not be the solution. But, said Watanabe, “There doesn’t seem to be a strong indication that he wishes to put his money in those alternatives.’’

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Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.