Parish financial accountability

Parish financial accountability

I received an email from a reader who asked what I thought the Church should do to address the recent embezzlement scandals, like the one I mentioned earlier today. Here is my reply:

Well, my thoughts are that there is need for oversight by both laypeople and bishops. The thing is that the structures for such oversight are already in place in the Church, but that sometimes they are not followed.

I guess you have to understand the historical reality that before Vatican II, parishes were treated like benefices. The pastor was king of his parish and all that happened there was his responsibility and his reward. In effect, in some cases the pastor essentially collected the collections like a duke receiving rents from tenant farmers and he could do with it what he pleased, with no accountability to others. Even the other priests of the parish were at his mercy.

Vatican II changed that by instituting rules for accountability, including parish pastoral and finance councils. The problem is that some of that thinking remains to this day among some priests, and as long as everything appears outwardly solvent, there is hardly ever a peep from the pews or the chancery.

I think if you dig deep enough, you may find a link between mismanagement of money and sexual misconduct by some priests. I remember a case in Pittsburgh a few years ago—I think the priest’s name was Fr. Benz—who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his parish and spent some of it on his housekeeper or secretary cum lover. Even more recent is the case of Fr. Ouellette in Fitchburg, Mass., who funnelled some of his embezzled money to a “friend,” who happens to be a convicted child molester in prison.

You’ll often find that financial mismanagement or embezzling isn’t a solitary crime, but is a symptom of a deeper problem.

As for how the Church should address it, she just needs to take her own laws seriously. Finance councils should be independent, elected by parishioners, and tasked with oversight. Parishioners should be given detailed financial statements. Independent auditors should look at the books each year and account for all funds. And the diocese should take seriously any questions or complaints sent in by parishioners. That’s something we should have learned in the past couple of years.

In a way, it’s no different than the corporate accounting scandals of the recent past. We should apply the lessons we’ve learned from Enron, Tyco, and Worldcom.