By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO, Feb 27 (Reuters) - The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced on Wednesday that it had suffered setbacks during the economic downturn and would cut about 14 percent of jobs in its central offices, as well as close or consolidate 5 schools.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George wrote about the cuts in a column on the archdiocesan website -- he has gone to Rome for the conclave to choose the next pope to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who gave his last general audience Wednesday.
The Chicago Archdiocese is the third-largest in the country, with 2.3 million members.
George said that administration operations have run operating deficits of more than $30 million in each of the past four years and the trend is "unsustainable."
"We cannot continue to work as if the effects of the recession were not being felt," said George.
The archdiocese will eliminate 75 positions, 60 through layoffs and 15 by not filling vacant posts, George said. The Archdiocese also plans to scale back on loans and grants to its 356 parishes.
George said that the Archdiocese is in discussions with the Big Shoulders Fund, a longtime partner, for a "new and significant commitment" to Chicago-area Catholic schools, through new scholarship funding to enable more lower-income children to attend.
The New York Roman Catholic Archdiocese announced last month that it would close 24 schools. Nationally, between the 2000 and the 2012 school years, 1,942 schools or nearly 24 percent were reported closed or consolidated, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
George wrote that the deficits incurred over the past several years do not include any payments related to "misconduct." The archdiocese designates the proceeds from sales of undeveloped property to pay expenses for sexual misconduct.
Other prominent archdioceses have been driven into bankruptcy by the clergy sex abuse scandal, which has cost the U.S. Catholic Church $3 billion.
Robert McClory, a Chicago-area writer on Catholic issues, said he believes the national issue of clergy sexual abuse may have indirectly contributed to the Chicago church's financial problems because it helped cause some people to break away from the church.
"I can't see how it would not be hurting revenues," McClory said. "If people aren't coming to church they probably aren't giving money." (Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Martin Golan)