The church could ease the housing crisis. Don’t hold your breath

Religious orders, some of whom fell short on redress pledges, will soon sell huge land holdings

“The religious orders still owe the taxpayer at least €150 million, on their own terms. And really, a lot more.” Photograph: iStock

“The religious orders still owe the taxpayer at least €150 million, on their own terms. And really, a lot more.” Photograph: iStock

 

Sometimes you have to join the dots.

On yesterday’s business pages, The Irish Times reported the splendid news that Glenveagh Properties, an Irish homebuilder preparing to float on the London and Dublin stock markets next week, is telling investors that religious orders are likely to sell or develop lands and properties worth more than €500 million.

Not surprisingly, Glenveagh – and, we may presume, other developers – are looking for a piece of the action. The company estimates that there 30 sites currently held by religious orders with the potential for 6,500 housing units, according to the prospectus, seen by my colleague Joe Brennan.

The developers reckon that the religious orders are open for business. And they are: CBRE, a leading commercial estate agent, says the orders were among the most prolific sellers of development land last year. It expects that trend to continue this year. Good for them.

The past 20 years have seen the orders offload land holdings in Dublin and elsewhere that must have raised hundreds of millions, if not billions, of euro.

Ireland was once the most clerical society in Europe. But as religiosity declined – first fitfully, then in a headlong rush – many of the orders found themselves literally depopulated. Swathes of land – often in some of Dublin’s most valuable postcodes – was sold for development. Swathes remain, too.

It is inevitable that most will be sold for development; and with a chronic housing shortage in the capital, it is desirable, too.

Redress shortfall

Now consider a report compiled by the Comptroller and Auditor General earlier this year. It looked at the performance of the redress scheme under which the State paid for compensating victims of sexual and physical abuse in religious-run institutions – orphanages, boys’ homes, reform schools and so on – in return for cash and property from the orders.

Leave aside the highly questionable circumstances in which the deal was finalised in the last hours of the 1997-2002 government, how it was negotiated by that Government (without significant involvement from either the Department of Finance or the attorney general’s office) or the wisdom of promising that the State would pay a bill of then indeterminate size.

Leave aside the justice of granting religious orders an indemnity in the civil courts as part of the deal.

Leave aside the fact that the whole thing was done in secret.

Leave aside even the fact that it was clear from the start – I know because as a young reporter I wrote about it at great and tedious length in the Sunday Business Post – that the State was the patsy and the orders played hardball.

But look at the Comptroller and Auditor General report on how the scheme worked out in the end on its own terms. It noted that the original religious contribution to the redress scheme costs was capped at €128 million. The bill for compensating the victims of abuse by priests, brothers and nuns actually ran to €1.5 billion.

The ballpark estimate for the cost of the scheme at the time of the agreement was €250 million. The State was largely in the dark, of course, because the orders had the records of the institutions where the abuse took place. The final bill ended up six times the original estimate. But the orders had insisted that their contribution be capped at half the original estimate. How fortunate for them.

Then came Ryan

After the Ryan Report in 2009 – the one that spelled out in such brutal, graphic detail the type of abuse perpetrated by the orders’ members – the congregations, in response to the public outcry and moral pressure, agreed that their contribution should increase by a further €350 million.

But actually, the Comptroller and Auditor General report this year found that just €200 million worth of cash and properties has been transferred to the State.

So whatever way you look at it, the religious orders still owe the taxpayer a chunk of change. At least €150 million, on their own terms. And really, a lot more. The original idea behind the redress scheme was that the State and the orders would pay half of the cost each. Allowing the orders’ contribution to be capped in the agreement was either stupid or negligent, and possibly both. Had the 50-50 division of costs been followed the State would be now owed €500 million or so by the orders. Which is, of course, just the value of the lands and sites that Glenveagh Properties reckons the orders are going to sell over the next few years.

It is certainly true that at least some of the orders that will be offloading their land holdings were not part of the redress deal and had nothing to do with the abuse of children in residential institutions. They have no legal responsibility.

But the wider church of which they are a part has a moral responsibility. Doesn’t it? How much of the housing crisis could be eased if religious-owned sites in Dublin and elsewhere were transferred to the State for social and affordable housing?

Over the next several months the country will debate what it wants its laws on abortion to be in the future. The church will take a vigorous part in that debate, as it is entitled, indeed obliged, to do. During those months, contracts worth millions will be signed for the sale of religious properties.

As they sign the dotted line in their lawyers’ offices, church leaders might join the dots and reflect on why their moral authority is not what it once was.

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