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Chicago shocker: Catholic archdiocese to offer 12 weeks of paid parental leave

By David Gibson/Religion News Service
On May 24, 2016

The Archdiocese of Chicago has announced that it will begin offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave to its employees, a policy that is almost unheard of in Catholic dioceses and one that reflects an effort to put the church’s money where its mission is.

Betsy Bohlen, chief operating officer for the archdiocese, said Archbishop Blase Cupich pushed for the innovative policy soon after he took over the nation’s third-largest diocese in late 2014 in order to ensure that personnel policies were in line with church teaching.

“Obviously we do want to be a voice for pro-life, family friendly kinds of policies,” Bohlen told the Catholic New World, the archdiocesan newspaper. “The idea was to make sure that we have something that can work for all staff.”

The gulf between the church’s rhetoric on behalf of family-friendly policies, and specifically paid family leave, and the fact that apparently none of the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses have offered anything like those policies, has been a source of growing concern among Catholic commentators across the spectrum.

A July 2015, report by the National Catholic Reporter, which is viewed as a liberal outlet, found a few dioceses that offered up to three weeks of paid maternity or family leave while most – including Chicago, until now – made employees use accrued time off and sick days, or up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, as guaranteed by a 1993 federal law, when they gave birth to a child or adopted a child.

“Currently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has no national policy on maternity or paternity leave benefits for church employees,” wrote Jennifer Mertens. “And while this approach grants certain flexibility to local churches, its absence has bred a disparate patchwork of diocesan practices that can fail the very women and men who breathe life into our Catholic schools and parishes.”

Just last month, Our Sunday Visitor, a weekly that is considered center-right on the spectrum, also highlighted the challenge for typically cash-strapped Catholic organizations to practice what they preach when it comes to parental leave.

The article noted that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not mandate extended parental and family leave, and that while some large corporations have begun offering more generous policies, only 12 percent of private-sector employees have access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But Our Sunday Visitor also noted that during his trip to the U.S. in September, Pope Francis said a society is not “healthy” if it does not support families and added, “We cannot think that a society has a future when it fails to pass laws capable of protecting families and ensuring their basic needs, especially those of families just starting out.”

Back at the Vatican a month later, Francis told an audience of Christian business executives that pregnant women and new parents “must be protected and helped in this dual task: the right to work and the right to motherhood.”

(The Vatican itself has some of the most generous maternity and family leave policies in Europe.)

The Jesuit weekly America followed the pope’s call with a strongly worded editorial that said the American church’s own policies in this regard were “a scandal.”

“The church should lead the way in making support for family through paid leave a baseline component of employment rather than a perk,” the editors wrote. “National norms or a model policy from the bishops’ conference would help to set a standard for Catholic institutions to reach.”

Chicago church officials estimated that the new policy, which takes effect July 1, is expected to cost the archdiocese up to $1 million a year and could be used by as many as 200 employees.

The archdiocese is struggling to reorganize and to recover from years of deficits that ballooned under Cupich’s predecessor, the late Cardinal Francis George.

But church officials said they wanted to make this parental leave policy a priority.

“The other reason to do this is that we want to be able to attract strong talent and we think this is an attractive feature,” said Bohlen, a mother of two.

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