Transparency and accountability

Transparency and accountability

Speaking of transparency and accountability, I am sometimes amused by the calls for more of both in this “hidebound institution resistant to change,” as I realize how far we’ve actually come in this area.

Talking to some of my older priest-friends, who were in parish ministry before and during the period of Vatican II, I realize that things used to be much different. For one thing, becoming a pastor was the reception of a benefice, that is an endowed ecclesial office to which a revenue is attached. It was a feudal system in which all the money given to the parish was the pastor’s and he was tasked with the job of using that money as he saw fit, in order to run the parish. In some cases, pastors were absentee landlords, showing up on Sundays to take the collection and leaving the running of the parish to one of the senior curates. The curates were at the mercy of the pastor who doled out money to them like allowances and would sometimes cluck disapprovingly if he didn’t like how they spent their money.

Removing a pastor was exceedingly difficult, even for the bishop, and once received they often kept the position until retirement. It was very much a feudal system and pastors ruled their parishes like fiefdoms. I heard one story of a pastor in Weymouth, Mass., in the Sixties who used to patrol his neighborhoods in the summer, on the lookout for housewives out in their front yards in, horrors!, short pants. As soon as one of the women saw him out and about in his car, she’d start phoning all her friends and the word would soon spread that Father was on patrol. The pastor’s word was law and God help the one who defied him.

After Vatican II all that changed. For one thing, pastors are now accountable to both their parish and the diocese for the money entrusted to them. They’re supposed to make regular financial reports to them both, for one thing. The regular transferal of priests also prevents any one pastor from having too much control or getting the opportunity to do too much in any one place. Certainly, diocesan rules spell out salary and benefits for both pastor and associates, avoiding the mixing of parish and personal money.

In those cases today where financial misconduct occurs, it’s usually because somebody stopped following the rules, and the only reason they get caught is because of the safeguards put in place in recent decades.

Okay, financial accountability and transparency is not the same as accountability and transparency regarding sexual abusers, but those calling for more of it usually equate the two. Still, it is interesting to note how far we’ve come in a relatively short time to having it.

Update: Melanie alerted me to a big typo. I had mistakenly written that after Vatican II, “pastors are not accountable…” What it should have said, which I have fixed, is that after Vatican II “pastors are now accountable…” I’ve been trying to spell check, but even spell check won’t fix that.