Archdiocese moves ahead with campaign to boost retirement funding for priests, sisters

  • Written by Nathan Whalen
  • Published in Local
Father Richard Basso. Photo: Ray Meuse Father Richard Basso. Photo: Ray Meuse

SEATTLE – Shortly after retiring five years ago as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Bellevue, Father Patrick Ritter came to a realization: “I was surprised that when I retired, I have to keep working,” he said.

The reduction in his income — including housing and food allowances and mileage — left him with roughly 60 percent of the pay he received as a full-time priest.

So Father Ritter helps out with services at several Eastside and Seattle parishes and at some funeral homes. Father Ritter, ordained in 1974, said his fellow senior priests face the same situation. “We just didn’t know that this would be the case.”

Now Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain has decided to move ahead with a major fundraising campaign to boost funding for priest pensions and medical costs, and provide some assistance for retired women religious. The money raised also could ease the burden on individual parishes, which help pay for retired priests.

The archbishop’s decision follows the advice of a survey of nearly 2,500 parishioners, lay leaders and clergy that showed strong support for the campaign.

“We’re taking care of the future now,” said Mary Santi, a member of the steering committee and the Archdiocese of Seattle’s chancellor and executive director for human resources. “I would see this as an affirmation for the priests and women religious who have served the archdiocese for so many years.”

Details of the campaign will be released in late 2017 or early 2018. It’s expected to be rolled out to parishes in four waves sometime in 2018, said Frank Feeman, the archdiocese’s chief financial officer and steering committee member.

More priests are retiring

The archdiocese’s pension system, established in 1978, is “pay-as-you-go,” Santi said. It meets the current obligations of the archdiocese’s retired priests, she explained, but more priests are approaching retirement age, so more money is needed to provide for them.

Canon law requires the archbishop to provide for the retirement needs of priests in the archdiocese, Santi said. Currently, there are 111 retirees dependent on the archdiocese’s priest pension plan. A priest fully vested in the pension plan (after 25 years of service to the archdiocese) receives $1,943 per month.

Priest pensions are funded in several ways: The Annual Catholic Appeal provides $800,000 a year, a Sunday envelope collection brings in $200,000 a year, and parishes contribute $9,400 annually for each priest assigned to the parish — raising an additional $987,000 each year. The per-priest parish contribution increases $600 per year, Santi said, which is a struggle for smaller parishes.

Money raised through the upcoming campaign could reduce the portion of the Annual Catholic Appeal dedicated to pensions, she said.

79 percent in favor

The archdiocese’s survey, conducted by the Omaha-based Steier Group, showed that 79 percent of respondents favored a campaign and 80 percent said they would make a gift, Feeman said.

Respondents were in favor of helping fund pensions and medical costs for priests and providing financial assistance for women religious. “We’re quite confident the campaign will raise enough money to adequately do both,” Feeman said.

“The pension for priests is what desperately needs to be funded,” said BVM Sister Joyce Cox, who is also a member of the steering committee.

Communities of retired women religious are meeting to provide input on the allocation of campaign proceeds to their orders. Retired sisters do receive support from their communities, Cox said, but currently they “don’t have enough money to fully fund every member of the community until they die.”