It may have the country’s largest private property portfolio but despite owning thousands of houses, the Catholic Church does not have to pay a cent in household charges.
The Church, which at one point owned or occupied at least 10,700 houses, schools, halls, churches and shops around the country, has an exemption from all property taxes because it is a charity.
With 1,368 parishes in Ireland – many containing several parochial homes and other properties – the Church may be getting off the hook for up to €500,000 a year in Environment Minister Phil Hogan’s new tax, despite its massive wealth and land interests.
The charge may be just €100 a year at current rates but the Government is expected to introduce much higher fees, which could rise to €1,000 for certain properties.
Archbishops and other senior church figures sleeping in their luxurious palaces can rest easy however, as their homes will not be subject to the charge.
This could mean a shortfall in excess of €1m per year in the tax take the Government would have hoped for as the full charges are introduced over the next three years.
‘They are all exempt from tax’
The revelation is sure to put pressure on the Fine Gael/Labour coalition to end the exemption for Church buildings. A similar controversy in Italy – where the Catholic Church owns nearly a fifth of all Italian properties – ended with the Church having to pay up for its property.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Ireland said that all properties held by it in the Republic of Ireland were effectively exempt.
He said: ‘The Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011 provides for exemptions from payment of the household charge to “certain charities”.
‘To date, charities who have obtained a CHY number (ie charity number) are exempt from payment of taxes. Church property in the majority of Irish dioceses is held in a diocesan trust, has a CHY number and is regarded as a charity.’
The spokesman added: ‘Where it is held under another structure the title holders clearly hold the property in trust for the diocese and the property has the same status.’
‘All Church property – which includes churches, schools and priests’ houses – are the property of parishes and dioceses. As such, they are exempt from tax.’
The Church has sought clarification on whether it would ever be subject to household taxes but has not yet received an answer, according to the spokesman. He said: ‘The Irish Bishops’ Conference established a Diocesan Advisory Committee some years ago to help prepare for the introduction of the Charities Act 2009.
‘In the context of the household charge, the bishops’ committee has sought clarification on this matter. There has been no official reply to date.’
Mystery surrounds the extent of the Church’s land portfolio but one survey estimated that at one stage the Catholic Church held 1% of all properties in the State.
‘Nobody knows how much Church owns’
In the 1970s, the Church owned or occupied more than 10,700 properties around the country and controlled almost 6,700 religious and educational sites.
Its vast property bank included schools, houses, halls, churches, convents, parks, sports fields, hospitals, farms, warehouses, shops and empty sites.
Included among those figures were several thousand private homes, retained for use by clergy and religious, such as the Drumcondra palace where Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin lives.
A spokesman said: ‘You are looking at more than 1,300 parishes around the country, some very small and some covering a much larger area. While there might only be a single residence in one parish, in others, there could be 10 or 12. The truth is nobody knows.’
Religious orders have sold land worth €667m over the past 10 years but are still regarded as the country’s second largest landlord, with only the State itself owning more property around the country.
Ten years ago, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern signed a controversial deal with the Catholic Church that indemnified it from compensation claims from clerical abuse victims.
In exchange the Church agreed to hand over land and property to the State worth an estimated €80m before the property crash.
Mail Online | Ken Foxe | 22 April 2012