Ageing orders have land and property worth billions of euro
ANALYSIS:GIVEN THE enormous role it played in Irish society until relatively recently, it is no surprise the Irish Catholic Church is the owner of a multibillion euro land and property portfolio.
The assets owned by the State’s 26 dioceses and 160-plus congregations and other distinct Catholic organisations have been accumulated over more than two centuries of providing religious, educational, health and other services to a once devout populace.
The property is held in trust by an array of organisations that now share similar challenges arising from declining and ageing memberships.
Many congregations of nuns, brothers and priests have property portfolios running into tens and hundreds of millions of euro, with average ages for their memberships well past the normal age of retirement.
Most have put in place lay structures through which they hope the assets will continue to be used for faith-linked purposes when the congregations themselves have all but withered away. They have done this while seeking to ensure they retain sufficient resources to look after the welfare of their members, many of whom need nursing care.
While the property portfolios are often huge, it is important to remember many of the buildings are used as hospitals, schools, homes for the disabled etc, and are not available to be used for development purposes. Many of the buildings have been developed with the aid of grants from the State which must be repaid if the buildings are to be freed up for a change of use.
The wind-down of the Catholic infrastructure that played such a key role in Irish life for so long is taking place against the backdrop of the scandal over the abuse suffered by children in Catholic Church-run institutions during the 20th century, and the role of the church in covering up the activities of paedophile priests.
Damages and redress to victims of abuse at the hands of religious, whether diocesan priests or members of the independent congregations, is an issue that could have bankrupted some congregations were it not for the indemnity scheme granted by the State in 2002.
After the landmark 1999 States of Fear documentaries by the late Mary Raftery, the State set up the Residential Institutions Redress Board. The government entered into an indemnity agreement with 18 congregations whereby they would contribute €128 million in cash, property and counselling services, with the State picking up the rest of the redress costs.
However, the costs have proved to be much greater than were earlier envisaged. The latest estimate from the Department of Education is that the redress costs will be about €1.5 billion.
In the wake of the 2009 Ryan report, the government asked the congregations to increase their contribution to half of the estimated final cost, but to date the amount being offered is well short of that. The congregations have offered a further €350 million – about €270 million short of what the Government believes they should pay.