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A Holy Mess
Posted by Marie Leone | CFO.com | US
July 28, 2006 3:47 PM ET

Underfunded pension obligations have attracted the attention of lawmakers and regulators, CFOs and unions—and now the Vatican.

The Associated Press reported on Friday that the U.S. Catholic church is facing a "massive" pension shortfall, putting nuns, brothers, and priests over the age of 70 in a precarious situation. Apparently, the unfunded future liability stands at $8.7 billion, and is set to rise to $20 billion by 2023. According to the wire service, the liability dwarfs the costs associated with the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis. The tally for that debacle now stands at $1 billion, with tens of millions of dollars in unsettled claims on the horizon.

Like most pension providers, including the government, the church doesn't have enough younger workers paying into the system to support retirees. And, as you might have guessed, the hard-working nuns, who make up 82 percent of the retiree base, have the most to loose.

(Okay, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have a soft-spot for Dominican nuns. I was schooled by some of the brightest, most creative, hard-working Dominican sisters on the Jersey side of the Hudson River.)

According to AP, the majority of nuns are now over 70, and their numbers shrank from 180,000 to 69,000 between 1965 and 2005. Their pension plight, among other things, have been documented in a new book called Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns (Doubleday).

U.S. bishops have organized a new retirement office to help address the pension funding problem, and some orders have been selling off lucrative assets to raise funds. But it doesn't seem like a solution is near at hand. Maybe the White House will consider a bailout at its next meeting on faith-based initiatives. Or, maybe the sisters will have to resort to old habits and pray for a miracle.

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