The Catholic Church in Australia has been accused of vastly underreporting its wealth, after a Fairfax Media investigation estimated the religious body has assets amounting around $30 billion nationwide.
That stunning figure comes amid criticism the Church hasn’t done enough to financially support victims of child sexual abuse within its institutions.
Late last year, the church also responded to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse by saying that increased payments to survivors could force cutbacks to Catholic-run social services.
Fairfax Media arrived at that mammoth figure by asking Victorian councils for information pertaining to the values of properties owned by the church.
In 2014, the Melbourne archdiocese informed the royal commission that its properties were worth a piddling $109 million.
The Fairfax investigation found the church had came to that figure by calculating the value of each property at time of purchase, and that an adjustment put the 2016 valuation of the church’s holdings at $6.9 billion.
An extrapolation of that data nation-wide led to the $30 billion figure. Cathedrals and offices aren’t the only holdings: the church’s massive school system is included, along with car parks, a conference centre, and even a mobile phone tower.
Fairfax Media suggests their total Australian holdings even rival those of shopping centre behemoth Westfield. The church is also nearly universally exempt from taxes and rates, and receives huge amounts of taxpayer funding for its private schools and hospitals.
Payouts to survivors from Towards Healing, a compensation system the church established in 1996, average $49,000. That figure is $14,000 lower in Melbourne. In the two decades leading to 2015, the church paid out nearly $69 million in compensation to survivors in Sydney and Melbourne.
The church spent $800,000 alone fighting the claim of survivor John Ellis, who sought a comparatively minuscule settlement of $100,000.
Advocates continue to argue that the church has not provided enough monetary support to those who survived abuse at its institutions across the nation.
Shane Healy, communications director of the Melbourne archdiocese, said accurate information on the church’s local holdings is “not available”.
A Sydney archdiocese spokesperson also countered to Fairfax Media that the church is “more than just buildings” and that “if the Church wasn’t [providing social welfare], who would?”
“As a charitable organisation it is important to remember we hold most assets for missionary purposes, not for profit,’’ the spokesperson added.
“It seems there are some who see the Catholic Church merely through the prism of assets and property, reporting and regulation.”
Last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a national apology to survivors of institutional child abuse during an update on a national redress scheme, itself a recommendation of the royal commission.