The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has hired forensic accounting specialists to investigate more than $1 million in church funding to voter-registration group ACORN, fearing the money may have been spent in partisan or fraudulent ways that could jeopardize the church's tax-exempt status.
The investigation is "thorough, serious and ongoing," according to a July 11 letter to more than 200 bishops from New Orleans Bishop Robert Morin, chairman of the committee that oversees the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
The CCHD sent $1,037,000 to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in 2007, including a $40,000 grant to an ACORN affiliate in Las Vegas that was raided last month by the Nevada attorney general's office in a voter-fraud probe.
The Catholic aid agency has given more than $7.3 million to ACORN over the past decade for about 320 projects, according to the Catholic News Service.
In June, the Catholic Church froze a $1.2 million grant for 38 ACORN chapters after the community-organizing group was accused of voter fraud in 15 states.
State elections officials and the FBI are questioning ACORN workers who submitted voter registration forms signed by Mickey Mouse and members of the Dallas Cowboys football team in their efforts to register voters in low-income neighborhoods, many of whom tend to favor Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama.
Mr. Obama once worked with ACORN as a community organizer and lawyer in Chicago.
"While there is value in registering low-income voters, I am concerned that the whole ban on partisanship has been violated," Ralph McCloud, the new executive director for the CCHD, said Monday.
Mr. McCloud said he could not reassure Catholics that the funds donated before 2008 were not used in voter fraud.
"There is no way we can tell," he said. "All our applications go through a rigorous screening, and we ask each organization to commit to being nonpartisan. The overwhelming reality is most of the groups we fund do tremendous work."
The CCHD draws $9,439,000 a year in "second collections" from Catholic churches, the next one slated for Nov. 23. CCHD funds go to groups that fight poverty, interfaith associations, peace and justice groups, immigrant aid groups, environmental coalitions, cooperatives, housing coalitions and labor rights groups.
Although Bishop Morin said USCCB money was not knowingly misused, the CCHD grants were doubled from $465,000 in 2006 to the $1 million in 2007, according to the National Catholic Register, paralleling ACORN's dramatic rise in its efforts to register 1.3 million voters.
The group ended up registering about 450,000 voters, mostly among poor and minority communities in battleground states.
Charles Jackson, communications director for ACORN, said no one from the Catholic Church has contacted his group.
"We've had no communication from Catholic investigators," he said. "ACORN's board has started its own forensic audit to look into all these matters."
In June, ACORN disclosed the embezzlement of $948,607 from the organization in 1999 and 2000 by Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke. The embezzlement was kept secret from most of ACORN's board members until a whistleblower publicized the matter, and Dale Rathke subsequently was dismissed from the national board.
He still organizes ACORN's international nonprofit arm.