MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The stories have become almost commonplace by now - big companies, politically connected companies cashing in on the massive federal rescue package that was designed to help small businesses weather economic devastation wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic. Well, today we are learning, courtesy of The Associated Press, that the U.S. Roman Catholic Church managed to secure billions of dollars in loans from that rescue package through the Paycheck Protection Program. Reporter Michael Rezendes has been reporting on the Catholic Church for a long time. He is one of the reporters who has been crunching these numbers and trying to track where that money is going. Hey there. How are you?
MICHAEL REZENDES: Hey, not so bad. Nice to be here.
KELLY: How much money exactly are we talking about?
REZENDES: Well, what what I and my colleague, Reese Dunklin, identified - and I got to really give a shoutout to Reese here because he's a great data reporter. But we were able to identify between $1.4 billion and as much as $3.5 billion. And the reason there's a range here is because the Small Business Administration did not release precise loan amounts. They only released ranges of loans. And we identified 3,500 loans worth between 1.4 billion and 3.5 billion.
KELLY: OK. So a huge range, but we are talking upward of a billion. That's billion with a B. It's a lot of money. How has it been spent?
REZENDES: Well, it's been spent, as far as we know. We don't have a very clear accounting. I have to say, as usual from the Catholic Church on precisely how the money is being spent, we're assured it's being spent for payroll and utilities, keeping people employed. But I have to say there is no monitoring of this program. It's self-monitoring. It's self-certification. So we don't actually know for sure.
KELLY: Do we know for sure whether any of it has been diverted to help cover past gaps in the finances? And I will note that many Catholic dioceses were in really bad financial shape going into the pandemic because they had to pay out these big settlements to victims of clergy sexual abuse. Does that factor into how any of this rescue money is being spent at all or do we know?
REZENDES: Well, this is one of the points we made in our story is that a lot of this money is going to dioceses that might be experiencing financial stress not so much because of the coronavirus pandemic but because of the large payouts they've had to make to clergy abuse survivors, sometimes in the hundreds of millions of dollars. You never hear much about these payments. You do hear a lot about supposed stress from the pandemic. And I think a lot of that stress is real. But, in effect, I think what's happening here is you're seeing churches who are stressed financially because of clergy sex abuse getting a break through the federal government through direct payments from the federal government that are being used to pay, actually, the salaries of priests and ministers, which is unprecedented.
KELLY: As we noted, this money was supposed to help small businesses. The Catholic Church is not a small business. How do church leaders defend this?
REZENDES: Well, I think the first thing that happened is because of the downturn in the economy was so severe, I think the government wanted to just get a lot of money out there. So there was an exception made for religious groups. They could apply like any small business. But then what happened is there was a second break that religions got. And the second break is that they were exempted from a rule that says that only small businesses can get the loans. And the small businesses are defined by businesses with 500 employees. And that includes the employees and all of their subsidiaries.
So we find now that religious groups are exempt from that rule, and that's why, for example, any churches, parishes in the same diocese can apply. And that's why the church was able to get so many loans and so much money. And, you know, I'd like to say that even though we identified between 1.4 billion and 3.5 billion, we know that's an undercount. We know we were not able to identify all the loans, so the money is really quite large.
KELLY: We just have a minute or so left. But do we know whether other religious institutions, did other churches get this benefit or was this just the U.S. Catholic Church?
REZENDES: No, no, no. All religions got this benefit. The Catholic Church, of course, is a very - a large organization. This is a global religion that is headquartered in Rome. It is its own country, in fact. It's headquartered in Vatican City, its own nation. It's very time-consuming to identify exactly who was giving these loans. We know - so we have we pretty good idea of what the Catholic Church got. Other religions did benefit. I can't give you those numbers right now. The data was just released this week.
KELLY: All right. Well, we will look forward to when you come back and tell us when you've dug through the rest of it. Thank you so much for sharing your reporting today.
REZENDES: Hey, my pleasure.
KELLY: That's Michael Rezendes, investigative reporter for The Associated Press.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.