The Next Church Scandal: Money
The powerful movie Spotlight showcased the failure of Church leadership to initially respond to the scandal of the abuse of minors. In the South African Church, thanks to the leadership of Frs Vincent Brennan SMA, Mike Lewis SJ and Desmond Nair and the members of the SACBC Professional Conduct Committee, the Church had a well thought-out protocol for the handling of allegations of abuse .
I’d like to point to another scandal that the Church has to be prepared for. It is something that the Professional Conduct Committee has been warning about for years: money.
Generally, the Church has a rather free attitude to money. Naturally, temporal goods of the Church are just that — temporal. But the natural laws of honesty and accountability must still apply, as must the moral imperative to tell the truth.
In my experience, this coming and present scandal of how the Church uses money and goods is not going to affect only the clergy. Yes, there are some fairly devious and clever clergy out there, but this scandal will strike at a different locus. This will mainly be lay people.
Having worked in the Church as a priest for over 15 years, I have had my fair share of witnessing and of dealing with this scandal—among, of course, also a lot of dedicated and proper service in the administration of Church finances.
Mostly, the mismanagement and misappropriation of Church finances and goods starts off by small gaps in process. Like making your collectors of parish money also your counters at the same Mass and then making them bankers.
We also need to ensure a reasonable rotation on parish finance committees.
We generally have a “leave well enough alone” attitude that can easily evolve into a “left-to-our-own-devices” opportunism which in turn can quickly spiral into dishonesty, theft, cheating and fraud.
Parishioners need to be far more demanding of their finance responsibles including their clergy.
In the last 15 years, I’ve seen a lack of clear process and checking turn into a financial free-for-all. I’ve seen how everything from negligence to opaqueness to a scorched-earth policy to financial record-keeping requirements.
We have all heard of the fast-and-loose attitude to staff, pensions, salaries and other statutory requirements. I’ve seen tender-nitis, preferred bids and similar deceptions that might make FIFA seem as if it was in league with some parish communities.
So what is the response? Well, I see a few things necessary.
The Church needs to be hard — SARS hard — in dealing with fraud and theft. We need to have a common, well-developed practice that can be implemented in parishes, such as the archdiocese of Johannesburg already does.
We also need to be prepared to lay charges against thieves — lay or cleric. We cannot play true to the law in some things only. Theft is theft.
Bishops, you need to seriously reconsider the practical training of priests in the seminary. Get over the idealised spiritualism priesthood that the whole seminary structure is geared towards.
Train your men to be managers. Give them the skills and tools to not only spiritually animate communities, but also to ensure that the communities are managed well.
You are tossing your men into situations for which most are poorly prepared. They can’t manage, and without proper preparation, they will never be able to take the oversight role that they are expected to take, mandated to in canon law and for which they are responsible in civil law. Drop the bumph courses and give your men proper training!
Dioceses also need to standardise their reporting requirements and tighten up procedures. A number of years ago there was a parish management manual produced at considerable expense, but it was never implemented—because of its considerable expense.
Work together to get that process streamlined from seminary training all the way to diocesan transparency and reporting.
Statutory requirements are the same throughout the country. Standardise! SARS and others will be more than happy to assist in getting a standard format for reporting. In fact, it exists already as a requirement for PBOs.
Injury on duty, PAYE, provident funds, health and safety stuff are all standard. Break down the walls of isolation and work to make the Church a model of compliance.
Finally, let the Church stop saying that there are no qualified people. Clergy are mandated to oversight. But there are so many others who are more than capable. They run families, spaza shops and businesses.
If they are able to do their best for their families, with insightful oversight, we can run the Church as a model of transparency.