From its founding in 1910 until 1979, the governance of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Rochester paralleled that of most Catholic Charities agencies in the country. There was centralized leadership and most services were provided in Monroe County, although for a period of time there were offices in Elmira and Auburn.
But during the last quarter of the 20th century, the organization adopted a decentralized governance structure rooted in the Second Vatican Council.
This structure emphasized two important concepts from the council: the value of lay participation in the work of the church and the principle of subsidiary, which entails addressing issues as close to their origin as possible, according to Jack Balinsky, diocesan director of Catholic Charities.
Since taking on the position of charities director in 1992, Balinsky said he has referred to the agency’s restructuring as "the noble experiment."
"When you empower all these people … (to work) to achieve the common good while respecting the needs of individuals, (it) has led me to term the structure the noble experiment," Balinsky said. "So far, the noble experiment has worked."
In addition to the Vatican principles, the decentralized structure evolved from successful models previously adopted by Catholic Charities in the Syracuse and Albany dioceses, Balinsky added. Charles Mulligan, then diocesan director of the Office of Social Ministry (which Catholic Charities was known as from 1977-93), and Maurice Tierney, the former diocesan director of Catholic Charities, developed the "Catholic Charities of the Future Report" in the late 1970s. The report, which had been requested by Bishop Joseph L. Hogan, was then accepted by newly installed Bishop Matthew H. Clark in September 1979. It called for a decentralized system to provide services and advocacy throughout the 12-county diocese by creating offices in outlying areas.
The new structure outlined in the report also reflected the new mission statement for Catholic Charities USA in 1972, which encompassed three major areas of focus:
- Providing quality services to all people regardless of religious faith or background.
- Advocating for consistent life-ethic and social-justice public policies that enable people to better achieve their full human potential.
- Working with faith communities of all denominations to address local concerns.
As part of the restructuring approved by Bishop Clark, he and the diocesan board then created regional subsidiary agencies within the Catholic Charities corporation. They believed that local leaders on subsidiary boards would understand and respond to local needs as well as relate to the business and political leaders in their own communities, Balinsky said. This type of local approach would enhance the agency’s efforts to develop advocacy networks and connect with local parishes in their own education, service and advocacy activities, he added.
Ruth Putnam Marchetti, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes, pointed out that the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching "states that, in order to protect basic justice, government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacities of individuals or private groups acting independently," according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ "Economic Justice for All" No. 124.
"Similarly, regional Catholic Charities offices have the independence and community awareness to decide which programs are most needed in the communities they serve," she added. "Catholic Charities of Wayne County can provide services for homeless farmworkers, Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes can administer the Cayuga County HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program), and Catholic Charities of Steuben County can run a day-care program because those were unmet needs in their communities."
"(Creating regional empowerment) is not something that caught like wildfire and spread across the country," remarked Balinsky, adding that most other Catholic Charities agencies in the U.S. still employ the traditional model on which the local agency originally was based. "But (the decentralized structure) continues to serve the dioceses of Albany, Syracuse and Rochester well."
This decentralized model also proved beneficial when the state changed the way it contracted with Catholic Charities agencies for services, which include a host of social services for local residents with mental-health conditions, drug or chemical addictions, or developmental dis- abilities, noted Anthony Barbaro, associate director of diocesan Catholic Charities. In the past, New York had contracted directly with Catholic Charities agencies for services, but by 2003 had begun appropriating money to individual counties, which in turn contracted with Catholic Charities and other agencies for services in those counties, he added.
This funding change created more direct interaction between local commissioners in individual counties and the Catholic Charities agencies in those areas, Barbaro explained.
"Now, there’s more direct accountability," he said of how those services are provided.
As the restructuring continued, offices were established in Elmira, serving five counties in the Southern Tier, and in Geneva, serving five counties in the Finger Lakes. In 1988, Monroe County services, including the Catholic Youth Organization, were consolidated under Catholic Family Center. A new subsidiary agency created in 1992 to serve the developmentally disabled and people with HIV/AIDS became known as Catholic Charities Community Services.
In 1994, Providence Housing Development Corp. was created as an affiliate whose mission is to develop and manage safe, affordable housing for low-income individuals and families, senior citizens, and people with special needs. Camp Stella Maris, which was established in 1926, also is an affiliated agency.
Catholic Charities of Livingston County was established in 1995 both to serve that area and to evaluate the effectiveness of a county-based approach, according to Balinsky. Because of its success and that of other efforts in the Southern Tier, in 2003 the Elmira-based organization was split into four new subsidiary agencies: Catholic Charities of Chemung/ Schuyler Counties, Catholic Charities of Steuben County, Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga Counties and Food Bank of the Southern Tier.
Kinship Family and Youth Services, which had begun in 1971 and was separately incorporated, was reintegrated into Catholic Charities in 2000. And in 2004, Catholic Charities of Wayne County was established as the 10th subsidiary of the corporation.
Through this evolution, the vision developed for Catholic Charities four decades ago has become a reality, Balinsky noted.
"Three hundred extraordinary volunteer leaders with close connection to the work of their individual (agencies) provide leadership to the diocesan board, the subsidiary agencies and … affiliates," he added. "Through their efforts, and those of 1,000 employees, Catholic Charities affects the lives of 250,000 people throughout the 12-county diocese."