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Could the Catholic Diocese of Columbus merge with the Diocese of Steubenville?

The Roman bishop Catholic Diocese of Steubenville expressed interest in eventually merging the diocese with the Catholic Diocese of Columbus.

Steubenville Bishop Jeffrey Monforton plans to discuss the idea with the other five Catholic bishops in Ohio, Dino Orsatti, communications director for the Diocese of Steubenville, told The Dispatch in an email Monday.

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Monforton suggests the merger for several reasons, Orsatti said, including a declining Catholic population in the Diocese of Steubenville, the depressed economy in the Ohio Valley, an aging population of priests and Catholics, and a financial scandal that has cost the diocese millions of dollars. .

If the other bishops – representing the dioceses of Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati – approve Monforton’s recommendation for the merger, Orsatti said he would present the idea in November to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishopsa national membership organization of Catholic bishops.

If the council approves it, Orsatti said, the proposal would go to the Vatican, with Pope Francis making the final decision.

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Bishop of Columbus Earl K. Fernandes said Tuesday afternoon that the bishops of Ohio had discussed the viability of the Diocese of Steubenville before he became bishop.

“The Ohio bishops were unanimous that the situation in Steubenville could not go on any longer and referred the matter to the Congregation for Bishops. This matter will now need to be approved by the USCCB. It is expected there will be a discussion about this at the Plenary Assembly in November,” Fernandes said in a statement. “Until the November meeting of the USCCB, there is no point in speculating or worrying; rather pray that the Lord will show us the way forward.

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Steubenville is located along the Ohio River, west of Pittsburgh, and the Catholic diocese based there covers an area of ​​13 counties in southeastern Ohio with 50 parishes and 36 active priests, according to its website. Comparatively, the Diocese of Columbus spans 23 counties with 105 parishes and 97 active priests.

The Diocese of Columbus has over 278,000 Catholics and the Diocese of Steubenville has less than 30,000.

The Diocese of Steubenville also faced a financial scandal in 2017, according to Orsatti.

David A. Franklin, the former comptroller of the Diocese of Steubenville, was sentenced to one year in prison for tax offenses and embezzlement in federal court in December 2020, according to the US Department of Justice. He also had to serve two years of probation and was ordered to pay more than $1.3 million in restitution.

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Franklin pleaded guilty to failing to account for and pay employment tax withheld by the government, to filing false personal income tax returns, and to defrauding. He embezzled $299,500 from diocesan funds between 2008 and 2017 by sending himself fraudulent checks.

“Diocesan entities provide support for individuals and families, educational programs for youth, a thrift store, an emergency food bank and more,” U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers said in a statement. at the time. “Franklin’s actions cost the diocese – and the community – $1.3 million.”

As a result of Franklin’s actions, the diocese had to pay the Internal Revenue Service and state agencies $3.5 million in 2018 to account for withheld payroll taxes and employment taxes, including interest and penalties.

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In 2017, the Diocese of Steubenville applied to become, and was named, a “home mission” in the United States. These are dioceses and parishes in the United States that cannot provide basic pastoral services to Catholics without outside help, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

The Diocese of Steubenville is one of 80 local missions in the United States, as the conference said the Catholic Church is “poorly established” in many parts of the country, including Appalachia, which includes areas of the diocese from Steubenville, as well as locations in the South, Alaska and elsewhere.

The Diocese of Columbus is in the midst of a two-year campaign to reinvent the use of its resources to better serve its people. Called Real presence, real futurethe campaign is an example of how dioceses are coping with the dwindling number of priests.

Mays said decisions on parish closures and other campaign recommendations likely won’t happen until next summer unless an unsustainability situation requires a quicker decision.

There are precedents for diocesan mergers. In 2020, for example, an archdiocese and a diocese in Alaska merged, according to the Associated Press.

The Archdiocese of Anchorage and the diocese of Juneau were merged by Pope Francis, who appointed a new archbishop. The diocese of Juneau was the smallest in the country for several years, according to the article, and the new archdiocese serves more than 30,000 Catholics.

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