NCR and RNS on Knights of Columbus
The Knights of Columbus have become a center of controversy in the religious media. NCR (National Catholic Reporter) ran a long investigative report by Tom Roberts on them (here). Roberts went through several years of tax filings – which he links to – and also conducted some interviews with executives. He emphasized the increasingly right-wing stance of the organization: “For more than a decade and a half, under the leadership of a former political operative, the Knights of Columbus has increasingly used its enormous wealth to influence the direction of the church, underwriting think tanks and news outlets while gaining entrée to some of the highest levels of decision-making in the church.”
RNS (Religion News Service) ran an editorial by Mark Silk which used some of Roberts’ report to denounce the greed and politics of the Knights of Columbus. CRUX, a Catholic newspaper which is heavily subsidized by the Knights of Columbus, has not covered the story. John Allen Jr., editor of CRUX, said “Our agreement with all our sponsors is that editorial control remains with us, and they've all respected that.” This may be true. But I note that doctors claim to be unaffected by gifts from big pharma, even though the facts tell a different story.
Overall Revenue and Expenses
Let me first address one glaring misrepresentation by Mark Silk of RNS. He wrote, “In 2015, the last available reporting year, it had revenues of $2.2 billion, of which it gave away $175 million.” He implies that the Knights of Columbus misspent or saved over 90% of the money they took in. This is false.
According to the tax form 990, of its $2.234 billion in revenue, it spent $2.165 billion, including $1.727 billion in “benefits to or for members,” and $151 million in salary and benefits. The accounting is less than transparent, but it certainly gave away far more than $175 million. This is not entirely Mr. Silk’s fault, as he got these numbers from the NCR article, which obtained them from website of the Knights of Columbus – not the tax forms. Part of the problem is that the Knights of Columbus also operates a large life insurance operation, but does not break out its revenues and expenses. I’m sure that far more than 10% of its expenditures could reasonably be construed as charitable or appropriately spent. While Roberts said that the Knights refused to answer any questions about their tax forms, I suspect they would have clarified the amount given to charity.
In any case, the Knights of Columbus is a very large institution. They have over 2 million members, who contribute 74 million hours of free labor. This is a huge and motivated grass roots force.
The chairman and CEO of the Knights of Columbus is Carl Anderson, who NCR says “began his public career working for Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.” While NCR notes Helms was “extremely conservative,” they neglect to mention that he was an old school racist and segregationist, who often campaigned on racial issues. This is hardly the background you expect of someone leading a large Catholic charity.
While NCR talks about the new political stance of the Knights, they provide few specifics. They highlight various anti-abortion groups supported by the Knights, as well as groups that oppose gay marriage, etc. While these are favorite right-wing issues, they are still religious issues, and not simply political.
One point that both authors criticized were the seemingly lavish salaries paid to the executives. The CEO, Carl Anderson, received over $2 million in compensation in 2013 and 2014. Other executives were also very well compensated. A spokesman for the Knights of Columbus said these salaries were comparable to those in companies of a similar size. But these were presumably for-profit, competitive firms. Mark Silk provides better benchmarks: “Catholic Charities USA is also a multibillion-dollar operation, and the salaries of its top two executives, as of 2013, were between $300,000 and $400,000. That strikes me as the appropriate comparable.”
The striking aspect of the charities supported by the current Knights of Columbus is that so few of them involve the poor. The largest expenditures are for shrines/museums of Pope John Paul and even Pope Benedict. They contributed large sums for things like Vatican Radio and television, not to mention CRUX. This swamps their contributions to the poor, the homeless, etc. They seem to spend far more fighting abortion than diseases. They act more like the Koch brothers than Jesus.