Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 13, 2003
Catholic gambling in question
Calgary Diocese issues gambling ban
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Concerned about the spread of gambling in the province, some Alberta bishops are, once again, calling on Catholic groups to look for fundraising methods that do not involve games of chance.
"We cannot continue contributing to the culture of gambling," says Calgary Bishop Fred Henry, who recently asked parishes to refrain from fundraising through casinos and bingos. "We can survive without gambling. We did it before and we can do it now."
Edmonton Archbishop Thomas Collins has taken a softer approach. "Instead of issuing an order (against bingos and casinos), I'm encouraging individuals and organizations to find new ways of fundraising," he said.
Alberta dioceses began cracking down on bingos and casinos as fundraising methods about a decade ago, arguing that these activities have become more than entertainment and are a threat to people's livelihoods.
In their 1998 pastoral letter on gambling, The False Eden of Gambling, the bishops said gambling reflects neither Gospel values nor Christian inspiration as many marriages and families have been hurt or destroyed by the practice.
While some Catholic organizations have heeded the bishops' call, others, namely the Knights of Columbus, a number of parent advisory committees from Catholic schools and a handful of parishes, continue to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through casinos and bingos.
These groups are among about 9,000 licensed charitable and religious organizations in Alberta that raise funds through legal gaming activity.
Last year Alberta charities earned more than $200 million through gaming, including $114.4 million from casinos and $50.4 million from bingo. The provincial government received $1.2 billion in gambling revenue last year.
More than 80 per cent of Albertans participate in some gambling activity. Of these, an estimated 5.2 per cent are considered to be at a moderate or high risk of developing a gambling problem.
Last January, St. John Bosco Parish raised about $65,000 in two days at an Edmonton casino and Father Romano Venturelli, the pastor, isn't losing any sleep over it.
"It's not that I agree with it but the impression that I have is that the people who go to casinos are people who have money to throw away," he said. "And we certainly need that money." Funds raised through the collection plate aren't enough to cover all the parish expenses, from operating costs to roof repairs, the priest explained.
Venturelli has less difficulty with casinos than with VLTs, which he says are available in every neighbourhood and are more addictive. Casinos, on the other hand, are away from neighbourhoods and people have to go out of their way to get to them.
St. John Bosco will stop casino fundraising if the archbishop says so. "If he doesn't, we will continue," Venturelli said. "I have many questions about this but they are not enough to make me think we should stop right now."
The school advisory council of Bishop Greschuk School, one of several parent councils in Edmonton that use casinos to raise funds, worked a casino Feb. 6 and 7. Principal Cori Chuippi didn't know the figure raised but said casinos are unbeatable as fundraisers. "Nothing else raises the same amount of money." Chuippi declined to comment about the ethical implications of casinos as fundraisers.
According to the school newsletter, the profits from the casino were used to "support the school goals in a number of invaluable ways - especially in the area of literacy and technology."
In the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith parishes, schools or diocesan organizations are simply not allowed to fundraise through gambling activity. That's because in 1993 Oblate Bishop Denis Croteau, describing gambling as a source of misery and suffering for the native communities in the North, banned bingo and other forms of gambling as fundraising methods.
Since then, the Diocese of Mackenzie Fort-Smith has not accepted any form of gambling revenue. Croteau once even turned down a large donation from the Knights of Columbus because it came from gambling profits. Other bishops are now trying to follow in his footsteps.
A few months ago Calgary's Bishop Henry asked all Church organizations to refrain from using bingos and casinos for fundraising. He thinks his diocese will become a gambling-free zone within two years. He gave two parishes that rely on bingo for operating revenues until 2005 to fall in line.
"This is one of the things we have to do to protect our own integrity as Roman Catholics," Henry said referring to the gambling ban. "If a parish really cannot sustain itself without bingo revenues then we have to begin to look at whether or not it really is a viable parish."
Archbishop Thomas Collins has not ruled out an outright ban on bingos and casinos. But for now he's talking to groups, urging them to find new ways of fundraising. "I really think that's the direction in which they should go."
About a year ago, Saskatoon Bishop Albert LeGatt and Ukrainian Eparch Michael Wiwchar gave the Saskatoon Knights of Columbus, who own and operate a bingo hall in the city, a year to come up with alternative ways of fundraising and with ways to limit the damage or danger of gambling addiction that might be present in the bingo hall.
"If there is harm being done then we should either try to limit or end the harm," LeGatt said. "And if that means trying to find other ways of raising funds for charitable purposes then that's what I believe we should be doing."
The year is now up and right now LeGatt and Wiwchar are waiting for the Knights' response. Any decision regarding the bingo hall will be taken in conjunction with the Knights, LeGatt stressed.
Several parishes in the Saskatoon Diocese still hold bingo in their halls but LeGatt made it clear he is not considering a crackdown. "That's not my intention," he said, adding the Saskatoon Knights had been singled out simply because they own and operate a bingo hall.
"There is a difference between recreational bingos and bingo that is of such a nature that it really becomes part of the gambling industry," he noted. "To own and operate a bingo hall is to be part of the gambling industry.
"And this is not just a question to the Knights. It's a question to society as a whole because our provincial governments do the same thing. Is this the way we should be raising money for needed programs and services in our society?"
The Knights of Columbus of Alberta and Northwest Territories agree with the bishops' stance but are concerned an outright ban on casinos and bingos would mean a substantial loss in revenue for them, said state deputy Mickey Casavant.
"We generate quite a bit of money, all of which goes to charity and to help out different parishes," he said, noting that more than 70 per cent of the over $2.1 million the Knights gave to charity in 2002 came from casinos and bingos.
A crew of about 30 volunteer Knights can raise as much as $50,000 on a weekend in one of Edmonton's major casinos. "It's big money and quick money."
The revenue generated by activities like breakfasts, dinners, socials and raffles - some of the alternative methods being considered - "is nothing compared to what we get from casinos and bingos," Casavant noted.
"Our long-term goal is to get away from raising funds through casinos and bingos in response to the wishes of the bishops. But we have some financial commitments for specific projects that we have in the community and in the parishes and so we have to meet those financial commitments. So there is no way we can stop immediately from getting funds through bingos and casinos."
Casavant said the Knights don't have any statistics that families are suffering as a result of gambling addiction but they suspect some are. He also suspects that if the Knights abandon their bingo licences and move away from the practice, the addicted will continue gambling.
"These people will not stop as long as there are casinos," he pointed out.
Henry agrees revenue from bingos and casinos is quick and easy but he said it is not necessarily morally correct. "People look for easy money and that sort of thing and you can probably end up on a street corner selling crack cocaine if you want quick and easy money but that doesn't mean it's morally correct to do," he said.
Henry noted bingos have changed over the years and they are no longer the social events they once were when parishes had bingos downstairs in the church hall.
"It used to be a very nice social event but most of our bingos right now are mega-bingos, they are money-raising ventures," he lamented. "Private enterprises have gotten into that. The government has gotten into that and we are complicit by reason of our participation in such a thing. We should be distancing ourselves from that involvement."
Added Henry: "That said, a simple little wager, a raffling off a quilt by the CWL, is a morally different act. But when you get into something in which we end up targeting the senior citizens and we end up with big jackpots in which welfare cheques become available and so on we are simply trying to take advantage of the weakness of some people and we can't do that. That's morally wrong."
Henry said his diocese recently adopted a policy that "we will not knowingly accept even a government grant if it comes from VLTs or gambling revenues."
Collins doesn't have difficulty with small-scale gambling for entertainment that doesn't involve a person's food money. "But very often gambling is much more than that - it causes real grief.
"I'm very concerned that Edmonton is becoming the gambling capital of Canada. Every year, many millions of dollars are taken out of the community through gambling. It's a very big business and what I think everyone has to look at is that this is causing real harm to people. And if it is, we shouldn't be doing it."
In Collins' view, anyone can become addicted to gambling, including the government and the Church.
"So what I'm basically doing is talking to the different groups in the archdiocese and asking them to consider this reality, to discuss this on their own. And I think if the groups reflect upon it and look at the issues involved, they will come to the conclusion that we should never do something to raise money for a good cause if in the process of doing it we are causing harm to people."