NEW YORK – Bishop Jeffrey Monforton announced on Feb. 2 that the Diocese of Steubenville has commenced an external financial audit, part of a process of charting a viable future for the diocese, which may include a merger somewhere down the line.

Monforton provided the update in the Steubenville Register. It comes about four months after he announced his desire for the diocese to merge with the neighboring Diocese of Columbus, which was met with swift backlash that ultimately tabled a November U.S. bishops vote on the idea.

Until the Feb. 2 article, no formal next steps had been announced since the vote was tabled. Monforton opened the Register piece acknowledging that “as a diocese, we have taken a step back.”

“We are looking at options, and it is on me to make certain we do the right thing for the people of God,” Monforton wrote. “Thank you for the constructive recommendations and suggestions from those who contributed to our diocesan survey, as well as thoughtful letters sent to me proposing options for the way forward for the Catholic Church in the Ohio Valley.”

Public accounting firm Schneider Downs will conduct the audit. It’s the same firm the diocese turned to during a 2018 embezzlement scandal, which resulted in jail time for the diocese’s former vicar general and comptroller.

Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, the metropolitan of the region, will facilitate the audit, and everything is being conducted in communication with the Holy See, Monforton said. He further explained that three diocesan chief financial officers from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Diocese of Columbus and Diocese of Youngstown will also coordinate with Schneider Downs regarding the audit.

A timeline for potential results from the audit has not yet been established, the bishop added.

Monforton told Crux in October that the possibility of a merger became apparent about a year and a half ago, when the Holy See expressed concern over declining numbers in the diocese, and the two sides agreed something had to be done. Months later, the Ohio bishops unanimously voted that a Diocese of Steubenville and Diocese of Columbus merger was the best path forward.

The October announcement said the immediate next step in the process was sending out a survey to the Diocese of Steubenville’s faithful to get their perspectives on the matter. It also revealed that those results would be presented at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops general assembly in November, where a vote on the merger would take place.

Instead, less than a month later on Nov. 7, 2022, Monforton wrote a letter to the clergy and religious in the diocese that he had requested that the U.S. bishops’ conference table the vote, after receiving feedback of “disappointment” and “fear” from priests and laity over the potential change.

Speaking with Crux on Jan. 26, Monforton admitted that his initial announcement and decision making process could’ve been handled differently, adding that at present all options are on the table.

“Absolutely not,” Monforton said when asked if a merger was inevitable. “Everything is on the table.”

“I’m going to see what the future holds at this point, so I’m not going to say I’m holding steadfastly towards a merger,” he continued. “I’m just stepping back. That’s the best way to take a look at it, and to see just exactly how we continue to proceed forward in looking at the diocese.”

It appears the financial audit is the first step in that process.

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