The church is not immune to thievery and fraud, afact that has become all too clear in recent months as financialscandals rocked parishes and dioceses all over the country:
- In Delray Beach, Fla., two priests were charged in September withskimming more than $8.6 million from St. Vincent Ferrer Parish overdecades.
- In Ohio, the former chief financial and legal officer of theCleveland Diocese was charged in August with participating in akickback scheme that brought him nearly $785,000. Joseph F. Smith hadleft the Diocese of Cleveland and was working as the finance directorof the Diocese of Columbus when the 23-count federal indictment, naminghim and former Diocese of Cleveland employee Anton Zgorznik, was handeddown.
- In Chicago, Father Mark Sorvillo was indicted Oct. 19 on charges ofstealing more than $190,000 from St. Margaret Mary Parish over eightyears.
He used the money for food, liquor, overseas travel to Paris, Londonand Venice and to shop at retail stores such as Neiman Marcus and SaksFifth Avenue, according to the Cook County State Attorney.
That indictment came three months after former priest Brian Lisowskiwas sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to moneylaundering. He had been accused of stealing $1.6 million from twoChicago parishes where he served, but the theft charge was dropped whenhe entered his guilty plea.
Opportunity to steal
Of course, the problem of people putting their hands in the cookie jarisn't confined to the church, said Charles Zech, an economics professorat Villanova University who co-authored Plain Talk About Churches and Money (Alban Institute, $14).
"This is a real problem in society," Zech said. "Look at Enron and all of that."
The difference is that people in the church often aren't expecting it, so they aren't vigilant enough, he said.
"As a church, we assume our folks are honest," Zech said. "We give ourpriests the benefit of the doubt, and in the vast majority of thecases, rightly so. We give our laypeople the benefit of the doubt – somany of them are volunteers. ... We have opportunities for people tosteal money or embezzle money."
To stop it, parishes and dioceses must be more transparent in the waythey handle money, and more accountable for what happens to it. Theyneed rigorous systems of internal controls – ways to make sure thateverything is accounted for – just as businesses and not-for-profitorganizations do," Zech said.
For the most part, parishes and dioceses have gotten that message. InChicago, archdiocesan officials reported suspicions about Sorvillo tocivil authorities when his parish finance committee noticedirregularities with the tamper-proof bags in which they used to keepthe collection money. In Florida, the pastor of St. Vincent Ferrer wasreplaced a year before charges were announced as officials from theDiocese of Palm Beach investigated.
Thomas Brennan, finance director for the Archdiocese of Chicago, saidthe archdiocese set up its procedures to make it possible to find outwhen something goes wrong.
"We don't want to say, 'Trust me,' " he said. "Trust, but verify."
Wayne Lenell, director of the department of financial andadministrative services for the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., said thatmost dioceses have the systems they need in place. That's why the casesof church fraud and malfeasance that do happen often make the frontpages, Lenell said.
"What's happening in these examples is the exception, not the rule,"said Lenell, a certified public accountant who worked for a major firmand had a private practice before going to work for the church.
What's not rare, said Thomas Groome, a professor of theology andreligious education at Boston College, is church managers – oftenpriests, sometimes volunteer laypeople – who just don't have themanagement expertise they need.
"We're marked by poor management of personnel and resources – not by any ill will, but by incompetence," Groome told Our Sunday Visitor. "Poor management has diminished the sacramentality of the church. The church has to be a credible witness to the gospel."
An example of how poor management hurt the church's credibility is theclergy sexual-abuse scandal. Better management of personnel andresources would have stopped the scandal much sooner, he said.
Groome directs Boston College's Pastoral Studies Institute, which isstarting a graduate program in church management to attack the problem.
"I think we were never in a better position to move forward with this,"said Groome, who acknowledged that some people question whetherbusiness management practices suit the church.
"But if the church is more than a business, shouldn't it be run at least as well as one?"
The Boston College program aims to help the well-meaning priests andlaypeople who want to be good stewards of the church's resources,Groome said.
"It's true in every business. There are rogue cops, rogue firemen androgue priests," he said. "But even the ones who are good aren'twell-trained. We need people who have both the language of the churchand the language of business management."
Zech agreed that the church is different when it comes to management.
"It's not like the for-profit sector," he said. "It's not even like the nonprofit sector."
For one thing, parishes tend to rely more heavily on volunteers inpositions of responsibility more than even most nonprofits, and thosevolunteers are drawn from a relatively closed pool of people: theparishioners. Furthermore, those volunteers report to a priest – aspiritual father – not a boss.
"The CEO of a parish is the pastor, and nobody ever became a priestbecause he wanted to run a small business," Zech said. "They let a lotof things slide that wouldn't slide by in a not-for-profit or afor-profit business."
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Michelle Martin writes from Illinois for Our Sunday Visitor