New head of Catholic Charities will try to right the ship

2010-06-19T00:00:00Z 2010-10-12T10:44:11Z New head of Catholic Charities will try to right the shipkeep the faith > Tim Townsend •, 314-340-8221

When a boat starts rocking — or worse, leaking — panic can set in among those on board. An experienced captain can instill a sense of calm in rough seas, but sometimes, only a new captain can save the ship.

That's what happened last week, when Catholic nonprofit veteran Brian O'Malley became the third president of Catholic Charities of St. Louis in 16 months.

Catholic Charities is the largest private provider of social services in Missouri, with an annual budget of $80 million and an endowment of $12 million to $15 million.

O'Malley was executive director of the Homeless Services Coalition in Kansas City, and a former head of Catholic Charities in Memphis.

Catholic Charities of St. Louis is an independent nonprofit corporation that raises its own money and runs its own programs — from helping the homeless, to adoption and foster care services, to elderly care. But while its president manages Catholic Charities, the archbishop appoints all board members and holds "reserve powers" that give him ultimate control.

In November 2008, Bishop Robert Hermann, who was the interim leader of the Archdiocese of St. Louis between the tenures of Archbishop Raymond Burke and Archbishop Robert Carlson, demanded that Catholic Charities turn over control of the way it raises its money.

In a letter to the board, Hermann said the archdiocese had been "getting complaints of donor fatigue" and wanted to merge the archdiocese's and Catholic Charities' development offices. He wrote that Catholic Charities had been allowed "to drift in a direction that began to work contrary to the desires" of the previous two archbishops.

Hermann's letter came as a trickle of departures from Catholic Charities began to flow more rapidly. By early the next year, nearly a third of its board members and its chief fundraiser had quit. In late February, its president, Thomas Mulhearn also quit.

Mulhearn was replaced by Monsignor Mark Ullrich, a former Catholic Charities associate director and spiritual director. Remaining board members said the storm had passed, and that the relationship between the archdiocese and Catholic Charities had evolved and calmed.

Ullrich said there "was clearly a misunder standing between the board and what Bishop Hermann was trying to do" and said Hermann "was not trying to take control of how Catholic Charities raises its money."

But by December, Ullrich, too, had quit. Carlson said in a statement that Ullrich 'submitted his resignation to me with the request to return to parish work full time," and Carlson accepted it "regretfully." Ullrich is now the temporary administrator of All Saints Parish in University City, according to the archdiocese's website.

Monsignor Vernon Gardin, the archdiocese's vicar general — and No. 2 under Carlson — replaced Ullrich temporarily, assisted by former Catholic Charities president Jack Lally.

In April, Carlson announced he'd hired O'Malley to try to right the ship. O'Malley, a St. Louis University graduate, told the Post-Dispatch in April that moving back to St. Louis would be "like coming home."

O'Malley began working for Catholic Charities right out of Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, where he received a master's degree in social work. He founded the Catholic Charities office in St. Joseph and has headed Catholic Charities in Toledo, Ohio, and Memphis. During his career, he's worked "almost every job Catholic Charities has," he said.

Memphis — which has led the country in infant mortality rates and where one out of every four residents lives in poverty, according to federal statistics — provided a true test for dealing with poverty, O'Malley said.

"The role of Catholic Charities is not just to provide services, but to be an advocate on behalf of the poor and needy," he said. "It has that special role in a local diocese."

In a news conference June 6, Carlson called O'Malley "a man with tremendous experience" who "has a real heart for people." The archbishop also said he had worked closely with the Catholic Charities board in his first year, including during a retreat with its members.

"I think we have a much better understanding of one another, and a really positive working relationship," Carlson said. "I think that's the first step in understanding what the challenges are."

One of those challenges is how to alleviate the donor fatigue Hermann referred to in his 2008 letter to board members.

In February, the archdiocese announced it had raised $61 million in a six-month campaign toward refurbishing Kenrick-Glennon Seminary's physical structure and increasing its endowment. But with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, Carlson decided to lower the goal of the 2010 Annual Catholic Appeal.

The archbishop said he felt the traditional goal increase over the previous year would be irresponsible, given the financial pinch Catholics are feeling at home.

"I think you'll find that people in the pews are pretty well stretched," Carlson told the Post-Dispatch two weeks ago.

Catholic Charities benefits from the Annual Catholic Appeal, which raises money to maintain archdiocesan parishes, Catholic high schools and offices. In 2007, for instance, Catholic Charities received $1.7 million of the appeal's $12.6 million — or about 14 percent — of the total.

Does O'Malley feel he's walking into a situation where there's unresolved fundraising tension? Where Catholics are being asked to decide between contributing what little money they have these days toward Kenrick's refurbishment and financial health, and also toward the church's mission to serve the poor?

"It's a big church and there's a lot of need the church tries to address," O'Malley said. "Some people refer to Catholic Charities in terms of the servant role of the prophet. The Old Testament is constantly calling people back to serve the poor, the widow and the orphan, lest they be separated from God.

"It's an important role, but it has to be balanced with the needs of hospitals, parishes and schools," he continued. "We can only pray that the Holy Spirit is driving those decisions we all have to make."

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Tim Townsend

Tim Townsend has been the religion reporter at the Post-Dispatch since June 2004. He previously covered personal finance and consumer news for The Wall Street Journal. He holds master's degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Yale Divinity School. In 2005 and 2011 he won the Religion Reporter of the Year Award, given by the Religion Newswriters Association.

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