THE news that the finances of Dublin diocese are close to financial collapse should do one thing at least, namely put to rest the myth that the Catholic Church in Ireland is rich.
The diocese has so far paid out €13.5m to abuse victims and their lawyers, and combined with the effects of the recession this has been enough to push the diocese's General Fund into the red, as revealed by 'The Irish Catholic' this week.
A 'rich' church would have been able to absorb this liability, which has been spread out over several years, with relative ease. But the fact is that the finances of most dioceses in the country are on a knife-edge more or less constantly, precisely because they are not flush with funds.
For example, in 1988, Dublin diocese was £10m in the red, and that was before the abuse claims began to flood in. It eventually paid off the debt and now it has drifted into the red again.
But the finances of the diocese are quite separate from the finances of the parishes in the diocese.
Just because 'head office', namely the central administration of the diocese, is in bad shape financially does not mean each parish is also in bad shape.
The parishes are each separate and independent financial entities and on average Dublin's 200 parishes are in the black to the tune of around €200,000 each, although this varies greatly from parish to parish.
In other words, it is completely mistaken to think that if the diocese goes into bankruptcy, all the parishes of the diocese will go into bankruptcy as well.
So long as the finances of an individual parish are sound, the fact that 'head office' is in trouble financially needn't have any effect on the parish at all.
However, 'The Irish Catholic' reports that 'head office' is asking the parishes to donate some of their surplus funds to it so that the diocese can meet its future liabilities and keep its head financially above water.
This raises the possibility that funds contributed to parishes by Mass-goers for use by their parish will now be used to pay compensation to abuse victims.
A couple of years back, there was considerable controversy when it appeared as though Ferns diocese -- along with Dublin, one of the worst hit by the scandals -- was going to ask Mass-goers to help pay abuse victims.
Some Mass-goers rebelled. They asked why they should have to pay for something they had nothing to do with.
This raises a pretty big moral dilemma. Abuse claims are naturally pushing some dioceses towards bankruptcy. If and when they go bankrupt they will no longer be able to give financial compensation to victims.
What happens then? If a diocese tells victims it has no more money to give, there will naturally be uproar because the diocese will not be meeting its moral obligation.
But if the diocese asks a parish to donate some if its surplus funds to it for this purpose, Mass-goers will object that they never gave their money to the parish for that purpose.
One possible way around this dilemma is for parish priests to consult their parishioners first. The parishioners may or may not give their permission for the release of parish funds to compensate abuse victims.
But even if they do, many parishioners may still perceive that they are being effectively penalised over a problem they did not create -- and will therefore reduce future donations.
Speaking personally and as a Mass-goer, I would not object if some of the money my family puts in the collection plate each week is used to compensate abuse victims so long as we -- that is, the parishioners -- are told this is what will happen.
It's true that ordinary Mass-goers had nothing to do with the scandals and strictly speaking are under no moral obligation to help pay the victims of abuse.
But it was priests of our church who abused children, and it was bishops of our church who failed to protect children from abuse even when they were informed that a particular priest was an abuser.
Mass-goers can walk away from the whole thing and in justice pay not one cent towards something they didn't cause and simply let their diocese go bankrupt, if that is indeed what it comes to in some instances.
However, while it might not be just in strict terms that a person be asked to pay compensation for a wrong they did not cause, I believe one part of the church needs to be in solidarity with every other part of the church.
Therefore, if one part of the church is in trouble over something we did not cause, we should nonetheless be willing to provide assistance out of a sense of Christian solidarity.
And so I believe that if and when a given diocese asks mass-goers to assist it in paying compensation to victims of abuse, Mass-goers should be prepared to go above and beyond what is required by justice alone, and answer that call.