Why Transparency in the Church Matters

Why Transparency in the Church Matters

[lead dropcap="yes"]It's frustrating as a Catholic to see our internal problems air in the media sometimes and realize how nobody is quite wrong, but neither are they quite right, and yet so much damage is done by not being forthright and open.[/lead]

Take the case of St. Mary's Parish in Winchester, here in the Archdiocese of Boston. Boston magazine lays out the story from the point of view of the former pastoral associate: He worked at the parish for decades, alongside the longtime pastor1, who had gained a major following in the parish, which had become prosperous and very active. Then as pastoral leadership was changing, a standard archdiocesan audit uncovered potential evidence of financial impropriety that eventually involved the FBI. But after the initial flurry of news and worry, nothing more was ever said and despite this employee's repeated inquiries, no one would say what happened. That resulted in him clashing with the new pastor, with archdiocesan employees, and an auxiliary bishop and eventually his dismissal. This has all led to a once-thriving parish shedding members who have gone to other parishes or--worse--stopped practicing their faith, and of course massive financial shortfalls.

It's like a bad two-act play that the Church keeps acting out over and over and over.

My Take

So here's my take based on the news stories I've read and my past, personal experiences working for the Archdiocese of Boston and no inside knowledge of this case. First, the magazine story is presented mainly from the disgruntled former employee's point of view. It doesn't make him wrong, but it does mean we're probably not getting the whole story. That is partly the Archdiocese's fault for not getting its own story out to frame the narrative. As I read the story, I recognize the names of many of the archdiocesan people involved. I worked with both Fr. Erikson and Bishop O'Connell over my time there and frankly some of the ways they're portrayed just doesn't sound like them. This isn't to say that they're incapable of what they're said to have done, but it sounds like what is written about them may have been written in such a way that are (probably unintentionally or unconsciously) portrayed in a negative way.

Second, some of what the employee, Sal Caraviello, says sounds exactly like things I've either experience personally or have seen firsthand, especially when it comes to the Archdiocese's HR policies. They are often arbitrary, lacking in charity, and certainly feel more like cold, bureaucratic, corporate policy than the loving action of Mother Church.2 On the other hand, I'm troubled by a couple things in the article that should get more explanation, like Caraviello's claim that he was allowed to "perform[...] weddings outside of the church," with the approval of the former pastor. To be clear, a lay pastoral associate should not be performing weddings inside or outside of the church at any time. Perhaps, this was just a misunderstanding by the reporter. One would hope.

The eventual explanation for what triggered the investigation rings true: A longtime pastor playing fast and loose with the rules, authorizing collection counters to "pay" themselves out of the collection plate and divert some funds into an off-book parish discretionary fund. Such practices were common in the past and thankfully the Archdiocese has cracked down on that and implemented strong financial controls. To be clear, collection counters should be volunteers, not paid, and if they must be paid, should receive stipend checks cut from the parish's accounts and reported as income. And all collection funds should be accounted for, not squirreled away. For too long, "beloved, long-serving" pastors have been allowed to get away with such things--and while there's no evidence of it that I have seen reported in this case--have sometimes been used to support illicit and/or immoral off-book activities.

It Could Have Been Avoided

But in the end, the bad results--the anger, the disaffection, loss of faith, abandonment of the parish, financial shortfalls--could probably have been avoided had the Archdiocese just told people what had happened. The investigation showed nothing criminal happened; just inappropriate policies and behavior. So why the secrecy? Why not just be transparent? This part does sound all too familiar. Had the Archdiocese just communicated with the parish from the beginning, much of the anger could have been avoided. It doesn't mean that Caraviello wouldn't have ended up on the outs anyway; when a longtime pastor leaves, there's always upheaval and inevitable change in the staff. But so much of the anger stemmed from asking and asking and creating tension for no apparent good reason.

The impulse in the Church's administration too often is not to communicate, even when it would be better. Too often, this appears to be based on corporate and legal strategies, as opposed to pastoral. A big business can afford to shed a few disaffected customers. But a single lost soul for the Church is an unimaginable tragedy. And it's not like the Church can afford to be high-handed anymore. For the past 30 years, we've lost so many people due to this mindset, we have fewer than 10% of baptized Catholics regularly practicing their faith anymore.

St. Mary's in Winchester is a prime example of how to destroy one of the few truly active parishes we have left by bureaucratic bungling, poor communication, and misadministration. We--meaning the Church--keep making the same mistakes over and over. Sometimes I wonder if we're capable of learning from our mistakes.

  1. Fr. Dick Messina, who was incidentally and anecdotally, the priest who baptized me as an an infant.
  2. I know personally of one case in which a former employee was told to sign a separation agreement that included a clause that they were not to step foot on any of their former employer's (the Church's) properties to which the former employee asked if they were being excommunicated from the Church. The HR rep waved it off, saying that it was just boilerplate from a standard form.

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  • From 1969 until 1989 my family lived in Winchester but were active EpiscopalIans. St Mary’s was the original Catholic parish and had only adopted those Vatican 11 changes which were required. In contrast, the new parish, St Eulalia’s, built in the ‘60s between Winchester and Arlington, had a founding pastor, Father Joe Lyons, who embraced the changes. Although both parishes flourished, they were quite different from each other.
    When my late husband and I became Catholic in 1989, we joined St Eulalia’s, with its many activities, rather than the more traditional St Mary’s. We noticed that although they could have walked to St Mary’s, many of our neighbors also did the ten-minute drive to St E’s. Later, Father Messina, who was liked and respected by everyone, moved the parish into the 21st century without losing people who were happiest in the 1950s. It was only when he was dying of cancer that there were problems. The collections at the other Masses were what they had been before but the collection, but not attendance, was significantly lower at one Mass. The capable and honest business staff correctly notified the archdiocese and local police. They, in turn, correctly called in objective FBI investigators instead of local residents.
    I’ve never heard of money-counters, in any denomination, being paid and I very much doubt that Father Messina would have told them to just put money in their pockets. I remember, though, that about that time, a former Middlesex County sheriff, and another in Suffolk County had both been caught stealing and had killed themselves. A good priest, like Father Messina would certainly not want to cause another such tragedy, and might well have made an excuse after the fact. The same would apply to his successors. We belong to a Church of mercy, not only of justice.

  • The question I have is how was anyone from the Archdiocese able to get into the rectory, wire it with cameras (knowing exactly the room where the money was counted and thereby knowing where to position the cameras), and then set up a computer in the attic without anyone having knowledge of this? That’s not a two minute process. Someone had to let the person (or persons) in and point them in the right direction. To me, this sounds like an inside job. I have never heard of money counters being paid, either.

    Whatever the case, it’s a very sad ending to a once-thriving parish and a sad footnote to Sal’s career.

    • It seemed apparent to me that the FBI set up the cameras. It would be their job to be able to get in and know how to set things up without having to be show how and where.