Financial Temptation, Loss May Be Church's Second Greatest Scandal

By Emmett Coyne
Hartford Courant
March 15, 2009,0,3220752.story

Controversy over a bill introduced in the Connecticut General Assembly to allow parishioners more control over church finances boomeranged around the country. Even after the bill was withdrawn, Catholics in Connecticut and across the country spoke out for and against it.

In short order, the Catholic News Service alerted the American Catholic Church. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver immediately sent a clarion call, claiming it threatens Catholics everywhere.

On the other side of this issue, Michael Ryan, a Catholic layman and retired federal law enforcement official, has written extensively, identifying poor oversight of church finances as the "second greatest scandal" after the clerical sexual abuse scandal. He developed comprehensive procedures which, when properly implemented and monitored, virtually guarantee every dollar in the collection is deposited in the parish bank account. Bishops, however, have largely ignored him.

There has been some movement for more transparent financial accountability in the church but many loopholes remain, allowing theft to continue. In the past 20 years, I have traveled to more than 1,000 parishes and experienced the disarray of their collection procedures.

I have witnessed single persons, including teenagers, relatives of the pastor, the pastor himself and the same few people who have counted the collection for years in charge. I've seen pastors simply take money out of the collection before it was tallied. The best parishes have rotating teams each week, or immediately place the collection in a locked bank bag to be opened only by authorized people. Rare is the parish in which a secured collection happens, in my experience. This allows individuals, lay or clerical, to be tempted.

Bishops have resisted a universal procedure in every parish in every diocese as they contend collected funds are within their purview, which is the position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Hence the slipshod securing of the collection I have witnessed. Also, bishops contend canon law prohibits the issuance of collection guidelines. But, Ryan says, a review of Canon 1265, No.2 discloses bishops conferences are specifically authorized to "draw up rules regarding collections, which must be observed by all."

The financial scandal may not be the second but the greatest scandal affecting the church. People may be more forgiving of sexual failure because frequently it is capitulating to impulses, though it can also be intentional. Theft, however, is more intentional, more willful. One has to plan in advance and continually cover one's tracks.

Google "stealing from church" to find a host of hits, exposing lay and clerical thieves.

Some caught are now doing time. Those caught may be the tip of the iceberg. With a system in which loopholes are as common as Swiss cheese, who knows the extent to which stealing continues?

Lest there be a public scandal, bishops are reluctant to make public instances those where individuals, priests and lay persons have been fingered. I know of cases where lay persons and priests were let off the hook.

It is difficult to comprehend why bishops collectively would not be in the forefront of a stringent control of finances, to minimize temptation to thievery. A transparent system of fiduciary accountability can only enhance trust in the institution, which is sorely in need of it. The church preaches a message to "walk in the light" (1John:7), "for everyone who does evil hates the light" (3John:20).

The proposed financial legislation is clouded by claims of the separation of church and state. The failure of the church to deal forthrightly with the clerical sexual abuse scandal caused the state, belatedly and reluctantly, to intervene on behalf of victims and against perpetrators. There is no reason the state cannot intervene in fiduciary matters when laws are broken. If the state has to intervene constantly in thievery within churches, the church system is broken.

Diocesan publications are controlled by bishops and rarely offer dissenting critical analysis and dialogue of issues affecting the church community. Most lay persons are kept in the dark. They only know what is officially released. The secular press is more open, more light.

The Connecticut legislation arose from lay Catholics responding positively to another instance of church theft, seeking safeguards to minimize damage to the institution of the church. As the bishops were forcefully dragged into issuing the Dallas Charter on sex abuse, they may once again be forced to react.

The Connecticut legislation may not be the last word but a necessary first word in a scandal, the extent of which remains unknown, and which will always be a source of temptation when money is lying around.


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